VANCOUVER — With seven countries now turning away imports of Canadian poultry due to a Vancouver-area outbreak of avian flu, federal officials are rushing to contain the highly contagious virus before it can infect farms beyond the Fraser Valley.
While the virus is not dangerous to humans, it has the potential to kill off entire barns of poultry within a matter of days.
“To lose most of your flock within the span of a week is completely unheard of,” said Ray Nickel, president of the B.C. Poultry Association. “It’s hard to even visualize unless you’ve gone through and experienced it.”
Over the weekend, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed that five farms have become infected by a “high pathogen” strain of H5N2 never before seen on Canadian soil.
To lose most of your flock within the span of a week is completely unheard of
As of Sunday, all five properties were subjected to “biosecurity” quarantines as crews in HAZMAT suits destroyed as many as 140,000 chickens and turkeys.
As many as 90 additional poultry farms fall within the three-kilometre-wide quarantine zones established around the infected farms.
The stocks at these other farms will not be culled if no evidence of avian flu is found, but they are subject to strict conditions about moving their birds out of the Fraser Valley.
In a weekend statement, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it has “mobilized all available resources to manage this situation.”
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The agency added, “it can be anticipated that additional at-risk farms may be identified in the coming days.”
Outbreaks of H5N2 have struck Canada three times before, but always a low pathogen (“low-path”) version. The difference is quite stark. A flock of chickens could be infected with a low-path version of H5N2 without immediately showing any ill-effects. A “high-path” infection, meanwhile, begins killing birds within hours.
Veterinarians have dubbed it the “cathedral effect”: Farmers enter a normally noisy poultry barn only to discover that it has been left eerily quiet by the sudden die-off of thousands of birds.
“Producers will know,” Dr. Jane Pritchard, chief veterinary officer for the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, said last week.
Indeed, the outbreak first cropped up one week ago when an Abbotsford turkey farmer noticed that more than half of his birds were dying from severe swelling and hemorrhaging.
Mr. Nickel said the die-off was so sudden that officials initially suspected it was a case of contaminated feed.
In press statements last week, Harpreet Kochhar, Canada’s chief veterinarian, said the new form of avian flu “is reflective that these viruses are actively mutating.”
On Saturday, the United States banned the import of all B.C. poultry products. As of Sunday, it has joined Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, China, South Africa and Mexico in the list of countries that have cut off poultry imports from B.C. — or all of Canada.
Mr. Nickel said the ban will not have a major effect on the local poultry economy, since Canadians eat most of the chickens and turkeys produced in the Fraser Valley.
Nevertheless, the effects of the outbreak are expected to have dramatic financial implications for the B.C. poultry economy. “We’re going to have farms out of production, and we’re going to have processors out of product,” said Mr. Nickel.
Fraser Valley farmers are being compensated for every specimen destroyed as part of the federal government cull. Official compensation rates range from $30 for an egg-laying hen to $1,200 for a breeding rooster. The average turkey fetches $70.
The outbreak began at the height of turkey-eating season in Canada, and it was only weeks ago that Fraser Valley turkeys were testing negative for avian flu as they were being shipped off to slaughter in preparation for Christmas.
Federal scientists do not know what kicked off the sudden spread of H5N2, although it is entirely possible that the disease could have been brought to Western Canada by migratory birds.
A 2008 study found high-path H5N2 in a population of Nigerian ducks, providing evidence of a “wild bird reservoir” for avian influenza. For that reason, dead specimens of wild Canadian birds are regularly tested for new strains of bird flu.
Canada’s outbreak is occurring at the same time as avian flu outbreaks in India and the Netherlands. In India the flu strain is H5N1, a version known to be dangerous to humans.
While no human cases have been reported around the outbreak area, Indian health officials have remained on high alert as more than 200,000 birds are culled.
National Post, with files from Glenda Luymes