Late last month, while taking my dog for a walk I heard the familiar, distinct sound of Tundra swans overhead.
They are beautiful to watch, but a reminder that with their return comes the threat of disease to the poultry industry.
Many areas of the province offer the perfect ‘stop-over’ or spring habitat for migratory birds and waterfowl making their return after spending the winter south of the border.
Unfortunately, farm land and rural areas are inviting to these birds by providing vast, open spaces with pools of water from melting snow and early spring rains, and the birds will congregate in massive numbers.
If they are harbouring a strain of the avian influenza virus (AI) and are spending time near a poultry facility or area where poultry are kept, the risk of transmission is heightened.
For this reason, the U.S. and Canadian federal governments have wild bird surveillance programs, which are good at detecting which strains of AI are circulating and provide location details of birds that test positive so the commercial poultry industries in those areas can be on alert. The virus is endemic in most waterfowl and other bird species, so it’s not unusual to have positive tests each year.
It also doesn’t necessarily mean that the virus will make the leap into a commercial poultry facility, or ‘backyard’ flock. But, in some years, AI seems to make this leap readily, and 2022 is one of these years.
That’s why it’s critical to have a good biosecurity plan in place, and keep vigilant by making sure that everyone that works or comes to your farm follows strict protocols and that personal protective equipment (PPE) is always stocked and available.
As I write this in early April, there have been six confirmed locations in Ontario with a highly-pathogenic strain of AI (HPAI), four commercial poultry flocks and two backyard flocks, and three suspected commercial flocks awaiting official testing results from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
Since the end of December 2021 and at the time of writing this column, Canada has experienced 12 HPAI confirmed outbreaks in poultry flocks in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Ontario.
According to the Global Avian Influenza Update from the Feather Board Command Centre (FBCC), the HPAI has been confirmed in all four North American migratory flyways in 2022. The strain is H5N1, which is concerning as this strain can be deadly to humans if it jumps species. The FBCC notes that this particular H5N1 strain of avian influenza appears to require a very low infective dose, is highly transmissible and highly virulent to all poultry.
The CFIA has set up controlled movement zones, as is normal practice to prevent movement of people and products further spreading the virus, but “despite swift response and control measures, this virus is popping up in widespread areas,” the FBCC says in the report.
One of the many lessons that has been learned from previous AI outbreaks in North America is that people are significant contributors to the spread of AI once it has entered a poultry facility.
The poultry industry in Canada is more prepared than other livestock industries when it comes to biosecurity and understanding its importance. The poultry industry in British Columbia experienced one of the worst AI outbreaks in North America in the spring of 2004, and provincial and federal feather boards and governments have had nearly two decades to learn from the experience.
The FBCC advises poultry producers to be aware of “any place where poultry may directly or indirectly come into contact with droppings from migrating waterfowl. Now is the time for all poultry owners to ensure that heightened biosecurity and sanitation protocols are always followed exhaustively.”
Although there is still more to learn with respect to how the virus travels and infects poultry, biosecurity is still the best form of prevention. No one in the industry wants to see their flocks destroyed, and deal with the trade impacts that results.