Avian Influenza

You may have heard about past Avian Influenza outbreaks in British Columbia – and you may have some questions.

In short, here’s what you need to know:

  • This is an animal health issue, not a human health issue. Chicken is safe to eat. Make sure that you exercise the same diligence with your chicken as you always have by cooking your chicken and keeping your surfaces clean.
  • All poultry and egg farmers and their supporting organizations are working very hard with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, as well as federal and provincial governments and agencies to contain and eradicate this outbreak.

So, let’s get into some more detail with some Qs and As we’ve heard from you:

What is Avian Influenza, or Bird Flu, or Avian Flu?

Avian influenza, or AI for short, is a viral infection that can affect all birds, not just poultry. Some wild birds carry influenza viruses without becoming ill due to a natural resistance. Wild waterfowl is seen as a primary source for the possible introduction of infection into domestic poultry.

Signs of the disease in domestic poultry range from a mild infection with no symptoms to a severe epidemic that kills the majority of the infected flock.

Avian influenza viruses are classified into two categories: low pathogenic and highly pathogenic forms based on the severity of the illness in birds. Highly pathogenic forms cause the greatest number of deaths in birds.

To date, the H5 and H7 forms of avian influenza are the only strains that have demonstrated the ability to be either low or high pathogenic. Remember, pathogenicity (either high or low path) refers to how contagious the virus is among birds, not humans. The transfer of avian influenza to humans is very rare. Again, this is an animal health issue, not a human health issue.

How does one determine that Avian Flu exists?

When avian influenza is identified, scientists use a specific system to tell them what kind of flu they’re dealing with. They identify them using a series of H’s and N’s (e.g. H5N1, H5N2, H7N1, etc.). Once a farmer notices symptoms in the flock, a veterinarian is called to investigate further. The following steps are then taken:

Step 1: Viewing the clinical signs, a veterinarian may suspect a case of avian flu and order a test.

Step 2: If the test identifies an avian flu, further tests are taken to identify the strain of flu. This is where the H’s come in. H7 and H5 are the two strains of the avian flu that might be of a highly pathogenic nature and very contagious among birds. If the tests identify an H7 or an H5 strain, samples are immediately sent for further testing.

Step 3: This kind of testing will show exactly what subtype or N-type (e.g. like a fingerprint) that the flu in question represents.

Once all those details are ironed out, scientists know exactly what they’re dealing with.

Usually, what happens next is that specific zones are set up, and these zones have strict movement controls in place, which limit the opportunities of spread from the factors we can control.

What are Canadian Farmers doing to prevent the spread?

Egg and poultry farmers are doing a great deal to ensure that avian flu does not spread.

While the risk of spreading always exists, farmers and farm staff practice strict biosecurity protocols to safeguard Canada’s food supply and defend against diseases that risk the health of the bird, like avian influenza.

Biosecurity measures are enforced on the farms at all times—not only during an outbreak. Proper procedures can slow the spread of the virus, helping the Canadian Food Inspection Agency contain and stamp out the disease. This serves as one of our best measures of protection.

Across the country, regulated poultry farmers work with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and follow a comprehensive on-farm food safety program. The program includes everything from on-farm inspections, to mandated standards for storage, cleanliness, air quality, feed and record keeping. For example:

Farmers document everyone who come onto the property, into the barn and where they were previously in the farm’s visitor log book. This allows the farmer to monitor access and to ensure traceability.

Farmers are vigilant about limiting access to their farm to only necessary personnel. To manage this all doors are kept locked and Controlled Access Zones are strictly enforced. Because avian influenza is so contagious and can be transferred easily, farmers insist that all authorized visitors wear protective clothing on the farm and in the barn.

Before a new flock arrives at the farm, the farmer and farm staff follow strict barn cleaning procedures. This includes disinfecting the water lines and thoroughly cleaning the barn and equipment.