Avian flu outbreak affects 500K birds in Saskatchewan, concerns researchers and farmers

Manitoba turkey farmers are losing their stock due to the avian flu that's been affecting the availability of birds nationwide. JM KM RG

The worldwide avian influenza outbreak is causing concerns amongst researchers and poultry farmers across Saskatchewan. While the risks to human health are minimal as of yet, governments and commercial organizations are asking everyone to be vigilant.

Read more: Bird flu numbers are ‘unprecedented.’ Here’s what experts say about the risk to humans

Worldwide, millions of birds have been infected with the H5N1 virus. According to the Chicken Farmers of Canada, this outbreak is the largest ever recorded.

The ongoing avian influenza reporting by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency shows that about half a million birds in Saskatchewan have been infected as of March 1st 2023. The total reported cases for Canada sits at 7.2 million. British Columbia and Alberta have been hit the hardest, with both provinces having over a million birds infected.

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Chicken Farmers of Canada says an outbreak can threaten the domestic food chain. If poultry farms become infected, there could potentially be huge economic damage.

“Our chicken farmers prepare for avian influenza every year by following stringent, science-based, on-farm biosecurity protocols. With the recent outbreak of the H5N1 variant, farmers are taking extra measures and working with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in order to limit spread.”

Click to play video: 'Growing concern over avian flu spread'
Growing concern over avian flu spread

The organization stresses that avian influenza does not cause any threat to food safety.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the avian influenza virus can be transmitted to humans through the consumption of food, notably poultry and eggs. We have consumers’ trust for good reason, and we continue to work hard to grow the high-quality, safe chicken products Canadians expect.”

Dr. Alyson Kelvin, research scientist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) says most avian flus are mild and often don’t even cause sickness, but the current strain of the virus is particularly aggressive in the bird population, both in symptoms and spread. However, so far, the virus has only posed a very minor threat to human health.

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“It is uncommon for a virus to cross the species barrier and we have seen that the current strain has a lot of trouble crossing that barrier. However, viruses are always unpredictable, so we are monitoring for changes and virus behavior at the moment. There have been perhaps billions of birds affected worldwide, but there have only been a small handful of cases of H5N1 in people, so we see that as a positive sign that the virus seems to have trouble infecting humans.”

The virus has been detected in other animal species, though.

“In addition to mortality in wild birds, mainly raptors, waterfowl, shorebirds and corvids, the virus has also been detected in several species of mammals, including foxes, skunks and black bear,” said the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment.

Read more: Why bird flu is always a ‘red flag’: Canadian health care experts break it down

The Saskatchewan ministries of agriculture and environment are closely watching the situation. The Ministry of Agriculture is coordinating with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the poultry industry to prepare for any outbreaks during the spring wild bird migration.

In a statement to Global News, the Ministry of Agriculture said that they proactively reaching out to producers to reinforce the importance of biosecurity measures and the need to monitor flocks for illnesses.

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“Poultry owners are reminded to take an active role in protecting their flocks by maintaining high levels of biosecurity, which includes preventing contact between poultry and wild birds — both directly and indirectly through contaminated environments, feed, and water — limiting visitors to barns, using barn-specific clothing and footwear, and regularly monitoring birds for signs of illness.”

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment also warns the public against handling dead or sick birds.

“While the risk of human infection remains low, the public is advised to avoid handling sick or dead birds. They should also report animals showing neurological symptoms or instances of multiple dead animals to the ministry Inquiry Centre at 1-800-567-4224, or through the Canadian Wildlife Health Co-operative Wildlife Health Tracker app.

“Hunters should take routine hygiene precautions when handling wild game and cook game meat thoroughly before eating it.”

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