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‘Real nightmare’: Avian flu strikes 7 Fraser Valley farms, wildlife centre overwhelmed

Click to play video: 'Fraser Valley wildlife centre overwhelmed with avian flu cases'
Fraser Valley wildlife centre overwhelmed with avian flu cases
This time of year is typically quiet for a wildlife rehabilitation centre in Abbotsford, but right now, staff are run off their feet. A flood of calls are coming in for sick birds. As Aaron McArthur reports, some say it's because of an especially deadly strain of avian flu – Nov 6, 2023

Seven egg farms in B.C.’s Fraser Valley have been hit by a fall outbreak of avian flu, and while those producers grapple with its fatal and financial impacts, a nearby wildlife centre has been overwhelmed.

Elizabeth’s Wildlife Center in Abbotsford takes in sick and injured birds, but with the disease now circulating in the region, its founder is unable to keep up with the biosecurity protocols that are required.

“It’s become a real nightmare because there are so many things involved,” Elizabeth Melnick told Global News.

“All the protective gear that you need and disinfecting and bleach — it just goes on and on and on.”

Click to play video: 'Bird flu virus spreads to mammals'
Bird flu virus spreads to mammals

Melnick said her centre receives no government funding whatsoever, but can receive up to eight infected birds a day.

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Avian influenza, or bird flu, is a contagious viral infection that causes illness and mortality in infected poultry. It occurs naturally in wild aquatic species, like geese and ducks, which can transmit it to domestic animals like chickens and turkeys.

According to the BC Centre for Disease Control, since last year, there has been an “unprecedented global spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza” — the H5N1 strain — that has infected some mammals, including foxes, skunks and marine mammals. This strain poses a low risk to the public, the BC CDC says, although bird flu can infect humans.

“Those who come into contact with sick birds or other animals have an increased risk and should take precautions,” it advises.

Click to play video: 'Skunks found dead in Richmond, Vancouver test positive for avian influenza'
Skunks found dead in Richmond, Vancouver test positive for avian influenza

Mark Siemens, president of the BC Egg Producers Association and an egg farmer, said seven farms between Langley and Chilliwack have been struck this fall amid the migration of wild birds in the area.

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“It’s unfortunately starting to feel very familiar to us as we’re now on the second year of a back-to-back outbreak, but financially it’s devastating,” he said. “It’s just not something that’s built into our costs at the grocery store.”

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is the lead agency in Canada for the disease. Anyone who has a bird suspected of having bird flu is instructed to contact that agency, their veterinarian and the BC Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford, which conducts testing for the disease.

“Bird owners are legally responsible to notify authorities of serious bird diseases such as bird flu. Do not take sick birds off the property,” the B.C. government website states.

Click to play video: 'Bird flu virus spreads to mammals'
Bird flu virus spreads to mammals

On Oct. 20, the province’s chief veterinarian issued an order for chickens and turkeys that fall under B.C. regulation to remain indoors, with the comingling of birds not permitted within the Lower Mainland.

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Siemens said the current outbreak is disappointing, given all the work Fraser Valley farmers have put in to make their operations more resilient to avian flu.

“We experienced this back in 2004 and we’ve really worked hard to develop a really strong biosecurity program that has multiple layers of protection to try and keep those animals safe and healthy,” he explained.

“But with the strain of the virus we’re facing now we are seeing it get through in some operations, unfortunately.”

Provincial Agriculture Minister Pam Alexis said the province is prepared for whatever comes, acknowledging an increase in infections this season.

“Just last summer, we had a $5-million grant program that went to farmers to help them be more prepared so the message for all of the farmers is to stay vigilant, do everything possible to protect your farm with respect to biosecurity risks, and we will continue to work together alongside the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to combat whatever comes before us,” she said.

Click to play video: 'BC SPCA wants you to remove your bird feeders, for now'
BC SPCA wants you to remove your bird feeders, for now

She also advised anyone with an infected bird not to take it to Elizabeth’s Wildlife Center, but rather deal with the BC Animal Health Centre, also in Abbotsford.

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With birds still turning up, however, Melnick said her team is “scraping the bottom of the barrel,” exclusively running on donations. As of Sunday, she added, some 35 birds were dead or dying at Cheam Lake and she had 21 dead or dying birds at the shelter — on top of all the other regular calls for bird care that aren’t related to avian flu.

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