Bird flu: Experts urge more surveillance in Canada — before it’s too late

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Avian Flu spreads to cows, raising concerns about cross-species transmission
WATCH: Avian Flu spreads to cows, raising concerns about cross-species transmission – Apr 6, 2024

Some experts are urging Canada to boost its surveillance of the bird flu before it’s too late, as it spreads among dairy cattle in several U.S. states.

“Our eyes have to be wide open and be confident in our judgment about whether the virus is here (in Canada) or not,” Matthew Miller, director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University, told Global News.

“If the virus is here, that would change the biosecurity recommendations around how individuals who work with cattle protect themselves and what measures we might put in place to prevent the further spread of the virus within cattle.”

On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended cattle workers wear protective gear. The guidance comes just over a month after it was reported one worker in Texas contracted the virus after coming into contact with dairy cattle — an instance a study released by The New England Journal of Medicine Friday says could be the first known mammal-to-human transmission of the virus. The man was reported to have no fever but red, swollen eyes.

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WHO says Bird flu risk to humans an ‘enormous concern,’ but what should you know?

The spread of the virus, known as H5N1, from birds to dairy cattle has been a major development, and traces of it have since been found in grocery store milk in the U.S., according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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The agency stressed that the material is inactivated and that the findings “do not represent actual virus that may be a risk to consumers.” Officials added that they’re continuing to study the issue.

Miller said it was only in January that experts thought the risk of the virus jumping into cattle was very, very low. That all changed in March, when it was detected in cows, and has since spread to nine states.

Miller said Canada needs to do systematic surveillance of cattle to make sure the situation here doesn’t mimic the one in the U.S. Knowledge that the virus can jump into cattle has created a new urgency, he said.

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Canada has so far not detected the bird flu virus in dairy cattle or other livestock, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) says it is monitoring the situation closely.

Miller said pandemics are at the highest risk of happening when humans are close to animals infected with a virus known to jump between species — and cattle is one animal humans happen to be around a lot, he said.

The World Health Organization said in April that the potential for the virus to transfer to humans is an “enormous concern.”

Click to play video: 'Producers take precautions as dairy bird flu migrates closer to Canada'
Producers take precautions as dairy bird flu migrates closer to Canada

According to Miller, if the spread of the virus in the U.S. was due to one cow contracting the virus from a bird, or bird feces, rather than multiple cows, then it decreases the risk of it being widespread in Canada.

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“The situation in the U.S. warrants a much more systematic and deliberate look at this,” he said. “If we find (the virus) in one place, it’s likely that the cat is already out of the bag. And it’s probably much more extensive than what we will appreciate.”

Miller said we shouldn’t be sitting on our heels and waiting to find out about the virus when it is likely way ahead of us.

Sabina Vohra-Miller, founder of educational platform Unambiguous Science, told Global News that Canada currently isn’t doing enough to be prepared for the virus and its potential spread. She said the CFIA isn’t currently testing milk, and that is a “huge mistake.”

She said it is perfectly safe to drink pasteurized milk as the heat from the process kills any bacteria or virus, but to stay away from unpasteurized milk.

We need to be planning for the worst-case scenario, Vohra-Miller said, and ensure treatments are ready, such as making sure we can ramp up production of flu vaccines.

There are still unanswered questions, such as whether it is OK to eat raw steak, runny eggs, or cheese made from raw milk, Vohra-Miller said. She urged products that are consumed regularly to be tested.

Right now, there have been no reports of the virus in beef, the cattle of which are separate from dairy cattle.

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She also recommends Canadians be very vigilant of wild birds that look sick or may be dead, and to make sure pets and children avoid them.

“We need to be one step ahead of the game at this point,” Vohra-Miller said. “The degree of spread that we’ve seen in the last three months in the U.S. is, frankly, concerning.”

— with files from Global News’ Katherine Ward and Sean Previl 

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