Canada-wide avian flu outbreaks cause wildlife centres to turn away some bird species

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Avian influenza outbreaks are occurring across the country at an unprecedented scale, says the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Martin Appelt, the senior director of the agency says this the largest flare-up of avian flu Canada has ever experienced. “We are not used to seeing avian influenza outbreaks exploding Canada-wide like this,” says Appelt, noting that nearly every province in the country has identified cases of the disease.

The Wildlife Haven Rehabilitation Centre in Winnipeg, Man. is one of many animal organizations that have acted to limit the spread of avian influenza. The haven has stopped accepting two species of bird, Canada geese and the blue-winged teal, which they say they’ve seen a high number of cases in. 

“Based on what was coming into the center and also the calls that we were getting in terms of symptomatic animals, we made the decision to protect the animals that we have in care,” says Zoe Nakata, a spokesperson for the centre. Nakata suggests people call animal control agencies or local wildlife rehabilitation centres if they witness anything unusual—like mass die-offs—out in the wild. 

While Canada has dealt with outbreaks of avian flu in the past, those outbreaks were contained to specific geographical regions, says Appelt. By contrast, this current explosion is being experienced across the country and globe. 

Large outbreaks of avian influenza are typically tied to the changing of seasons as migratory birds move across the globe. While Canada saw large increases in cases in the spring and fall, the current outbreak has been ongoing since Oct. 2021. “Normally—at least in living memory—we have not had outbreaks going through the winter, but last year we did,” Appelt says.

How to keep birds (and yourself) safe from avian flu

The CFIA is working with different levels of government, and members of the poultry industry to control the spread of the disease, says Appelt. 

One of the ways the CFIA has been attacking the disease is by identifying outbreaks and eliminating the infected bird population before the disease spreads further. The CFIA has killed 3 million domestic birds since the start of the outbreak in Oct. 2021, says Appelt. “This is not a disease that can be dealt with on an individual level.” 

The virus has proven highly transmissible due to the amount of infectious material in the form of bird excrement being produced, says Appelt. “I think of it as a massive aerial bombing that creates infectious resources that simply keep the disease going,” he says. Even if local outbreaks are handled, large amounts of infectious material remains to infect a new batch of animals and perpetuate the disease.

Now, Appelt says, the question is whether this current outbreak will dissipate. “Will this wrap up or is there now so much virus in the wildlife and in contaminated soil that we will see flare-ups continue? Nobody really knows at this point.”

Shayan Sharif, a professor at the University of Guelph who studies immunology and avian influenza, says it’s possible the outbreak could affect poultry supply chains, but it seems unlikely given the current pattern of transmission. 

“I don’t really think that consumers are going to notice a massive price rise over the span of the next few months unless we have massive amounts of transmission of this virus, especially from farm to farm,” Sharif says. “I think the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has really done a good job of trying to suppress the spread of this virus from one farm to another.”

To help limit the spread of avian flu, Sharif recommends owners of domestic birds limit their interactions with migratory birds and waterfowl. He also recommends against feeding live birds. 

This particular virus doesn’t seem to be spreading to humans, says Sharif. However, there is a concern that human transmission could eventually develop. “What we’re really concerned about is the potential for this virus to gain the ability to transmit itself from one human to another human, and then eventually cause some sort of a pandemic,” he says. “So we really need to make sure that we contain this virus and, in a sense, nip it in the bud.”

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