The epicenter of an ‘unusual’ avian flu outbreak

The virus has led to the death of more than 3.6 million birds in BC—primarily in the Fraser Valley—since it was first detected in April 2022.

An avian influenza outbreak that has plagued the Fraser Valley’s poultry farms since the spring has seemingly diminished for now. But it’s expected to return.

Although every province except for Prince Edward Island has identified cases of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), the Fraser Valley is the epicenter of the “unprecedented outbreak,” with millions of birds killed locally.

The first case of HPAI in BC was detected last April. It wasn’t discovered in the Fraser Valley for another month. Since then, the virus has led to the death of more than 3.6 million birds across the province at 103 different locations, 81 of which are in the Fraser Valley.

The virus doesn’t usually survive the summer heat, but in this case it did, making this strain particularly unusual, said Amanda Brittain, BC Egg’s director of communications.

The strain is particularly virulent, Brittain said, and has infected many more birds than previous outbreaks.

There were 51 previously infected sites in BC that have been declared influenza-free and released from the CFIA’s watch. But another 52 locations are still considered infected and will need to meet certain criteria before they are deemed safe.

There is some hope: it's been more than 30 days since a case was last detected in BC. The last case was on Jan. 22 at a commercial poultry farm in Chilliwack. Since then no new cases have been reported.

But it doesn’t mean the worst is over.

“Avian influenza follows the migratory bird season,” Brittain said. “That’s why we had a spring and then a fall outbreak… and we are anticipating more infections with the spring migration.”

Farmers, even in uninfected areas, have been forced to take extra precautions. In the fall, farmers were ordered to keep all commercial birds indoors to keep them away from wild birds, which are one of main transmitters of the virus.

“Farmers are under a great deal of stress,” Brittain said. “Even if you’re not on an infected farm, there’s all kinds of rules about movements.”

Permits are required for feed delivery, egg pick ups, and shipping chickens. Farmers are even changing their shoes two or three times before they get inside the barn, Brittain said. And farmers that operate infected farms are facing financial repercussions. Fortunately, farmers are compensated for the birds that are ordered destroyed and insurance also covers some losses. But, Brittain said there are “massive costs” associated with cleaning and disinfecting.

“They are not made whole by this compensation.”

Avian influenza outbreaks aren’t typical. Neither are they exceptionally rare. Brittain estimates BC has had five outbreaks since 2004.

“While it’s not an annual thing, it is definitely something farmers think about every spring and fall with the migration,” she said.

The best way the community can support their farmers is to buy local, she said.

“You cannot catch avian influenza from eating properly cooked eggs and chicken and turkey,” said Brittain. “So there’s no danger to the public. You can’t catch it from driving by a farm.

“So the best thing to do is to support your local farmer by asking for BC products at the grocery store.”

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