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Quebec avian flu cases higher than expected as bird deaths near 1 million: expert

‘The important thing is not to bring something from the outside into our breeding areas’

Poultry farmers in Quebec are grappling with a series of outbreaks of deadly avian flu, as the number of birds that have died or been euthanized due to the disease since early last year nears the one million mark.

Sylvain Junior Henrie, who co-owns Ferme La Caboche in Rimouski, Que., said poultry farmers are all taking extra precautions.

At his farm northeast of Quebec City, people change boots and coveralls before entering any buildings. He’s waiting until later in the year to put his flock outside, and he’s invested in mobile shelters and a series of tarps and canvas to ensure that wild birds can’t mix with his organic chickens, ducks and turkeys.

“The important thing is not to bring something from the outside into our breeding areas,” Henrie said.

Henrie and others farmers in his region have so far been spared, but the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus is having a widespread impact on poultry farming in the province, from anxiety for farmers to a shortage of the drug used to euthanize infected flocks.

As of Friday, 20 locations in the province were considered actively infected. Alberta had the next highest number of infected sites with 11, followed by British Columbia with eight. More than 7.6 million birds in Canada have either died or been euthanized due to the flu since last year, including 945,000 in Quebec.

On April 26, the Quebec government implemented new rules that banned exhibitions, fairs or sales where birds from different locations come together.

Martin Pelletier, a spokesman for a group that monitors poultry disease in Quebec, said there have already been more outbreaks this year than all of last.

“We expected to have cases this year, and it’s certain that we’ve had more than expected,” he said. Pelletier, who is general manager of the Équipe québécoise de contrôle des maladies avicoles, said cases can rise in the spring due to the return of migratory birds that carry the disease.

Jean-Pierre Vaillancourt, a professor at the Université de Montréal veterinary school, said the current outbreaks are concentrated in a cluster of farms in the Montérégie region, east of Montreal. He said the proximity of farms — some as close as 200 metres from each other — can create problems if employees, equipment or facilities are shared.

“We have a situation where you have a lot of farms very close to one another,” he said. “So, that created this kind of series of outbreaks.”

He said some of the farms involved are duck farms, which create heightened risk because ducks tend to carry the disease for longer before showing symptoms.

Vaillancourt said that, with the exception of Quebec, cases in the rest of Canada and the United States are far lower than last year. But the outbreak is still raising many concerns, including the environmental challenges of disposing of carcasses and the social acceptability of killing tens of thousands of birds at a time.

He said avian flu is also “devastating on many levels” for producers who have to watch their entire flocks destroyed. While they’re compensated for the lost birds, production disruptions can take months to overcome, harming rural economies that depend on farming jobs.

Animal welfare is also a big concern, he said. Flocks where the virus is found are euthanized, partly to spare them a slow death from disease. However, he said carbon dioxide — the gas of choice for euthanizing the birds — is currently in short supply because there is so much demand for making carbonated drinks and other uses.

“It may even delay the slaughter of some flocks, and it has some direct welfare implications there,” he said.

Henrie said a flu outbreak would be devastating for a family farm like his.

“All our savings are (in the farm),” he said, adding that the price of producing organically is higher. “It’s a lot of time too, so rather than lose a farm like ours we prefer to take upstream measures to make sure the virus doesn’t get in.”

In his opinion, the H5N1 outbreak should make people question massive industrial productions, which make diseases harder to contain and mean mass deaths if the flu enters.

Vaillancourt said avian flu has been discovered in 274 bird species, as well as dozens of mammals including seals, foxes and raccoons.

Public health agencies in Canada, the U.S. and Europe agree the risk to human health remains low, with cases almost always limited to direct contact with infected birds or environments, such as a poultry barn. There is no risk associated with eating thoroughly cooked poultry products.

However, researchers are keeping a close eye on how H5N1 evolves. In a paper published earlier this year, scientists with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency looked at cases in 40 different wild mammals and found the virus had undergone some “critical mutations,” though the agency said the chances of human spillover remains minimal.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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