Bird flu poses new threat to Fraser Valley’s flood-hit poultry industry

BC's Animal Health Centre not yet operational after suffering damage in last year's flooding.

By Tyler Olsen | April 19, 2022 |5:00 am

The Fraser Valley’s storm-hit poultry farmers and egg producers have yet another thing to fret about. But a spokesperson for BC’s egg industry says farmers will “roll with the punches” to get through the latest episode in a tough 12 months.

The detection of bird flu in the Okanagan last week was the latest sign that the bird-killing virus is moving west.

While avian influenza doesn’t pose a risk to humans or to food, it can kill large numbers of birds, and has now been detected across a huge swath of North America. It will be a significant worry to poultry farmers in the Fraser Valley, where it killed hundreds of thousands of birds in 2014. Its arrival comes at the end of a particularly hard year for poultry farmers. Last year’s heat dome, flooding, and cold snaps made the year an exceptionally difficult one, with the flooding alone killing more than 600,000 chickens.

It also significantly damaged the province’s Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford. The facility is Western Canada’s busiest veterinary laboratory, with scientists at the site testing for a variety of diseases and agents that affect any number of animals. The facility—located prominently on the north side of Highway 1 near the Sumas exit—plays a key role in addressing outbreak of disease in animal populations. But operations are not yet back to normal at the site.

A Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson said in an email that it has made getting the facility repaired a priority, and that staff have begun to return over the last month. That has allowed some lab services to resume, including poultry serology testing. But it’s still a work in progress.

In the meantime, the BC Centre for Disease Control will be helping to process suspect avian influenza samples until the Animal Health Centre is ready. Some samples are also sent to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease in Winnipeg. The province hopes the Animal Health Centre will be fully operational in a matter of weeks.


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The 2014 outbreak killed some 200,000 birds at 11 farms, most of which were located in Langley, Abbotsford or Chilliwack.

The virus tends to spread largely via wild birds, which often carry avian influenza without symptoms. Once in a flock, avian influenza can spread extremely quickly, and can kill an entire flock in just 48 hours.

No cases have yet been detected in the Fraser Valley this year, and farmers have been told to do everything possible to limit the risk of the virus spreading. Both commercial and backyard flocks are at risk from the virus, and all bird owners are urged to take steps to minimize contact between their birds and wild fowl.

Commercial operators with more than 100 birds have been ordered to keep their poultry indoors over the coming month. Those with small backyard operations are being urged to do the same. If they can’t the province says they should use fencing and other means to keep their birds away from any wild fowl. They are also discouraged from acquiring new birds or taking part in exhibitions.

Contact between wild birds and domestic poultry is a prime way that the virus can infect a flock. But humans can also unwittingly pick it up on their garments, footwear, or work instruments and introduce it into commercial and domestic settings. That requires strict biosecurity protocols for all those visiting poultry operations.

Lessons learned during previous outbreaks will inform any response to avian influenza this time round, if it returns to Fraser Valley farms.

Representatives from BC’s poultry industry, the province, and other stakeholders regularly train and plan for disease outbreaks, Amanda Brittain, a spokesperson with the BC Egg Marketing Board, said.

 

BC's Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford is usually the centre of testing for avian influenza and other diseases affecting the province's agriculture industry. 📷 BC Government/Flickr
BC’s Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford is usually the centre of testing for avian influenza and other diseases affecting the province’s agriculture industry. 📷 BC Government/Flickr

Since 2014, work has been done to increase the speed at which flocks can be euthanized. Because of the virulence of influenza and the pain it can cause to animals within flocks, once one bird is infected, officials move to cull an entire herd as quickly as possible.

Eight years ago, it took as long as five days for some birds on the first two farms to be euthanized. In the years that followed, BC moved to purchase equipment that would allow it to cull flocks. Previously, the federal Canadian Food Inspection Agency was in charge of that process, which uses CO2 pumped into barns to knock out, then euthanize poultry.

Local farmers will be hoping it never gets to that.

Brittain said producers are a resilient bunch and will do what needs to be done to head off this latest threat.

“They just keep bouncing back and roll with the punches,” she said. “When somebody needs help, somebody else is there to lend a hand so with avian influenza, they know what they have to do.”

There is one piece of solace: avian influenza often surfaces in the fall and winter, like human flus. The warming weather could decrease the window it has to circulate. Whatever the case, Brittain says producers will adapt.

“They’re going to do work their hardest to keep it out of their barns,” she said. “If it does happen, it happens, then we work together to stop it from moving to another farm.”

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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