A highly infectious strain of the bird flu popping up across North America is now near Manitoba’s border.
The return of spring means migratory birds are coming back for the summer, except they’re bringing something else back with them—avian influenza.
“You’ve got all these waterfowl, these migrating birds that are moving all across North America. So as you track the cases, what we’ve been doing for the last several weeks, you see it go up from state to state to state, and basically, you can see the virus travel north,” explained Zoé Nakata, the executive director, of Wildlife Haven Rehabilitation Centre.
The birds are carrying the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain.
With no cure or way to stop it, it has places like Wildlife Haven Rehabilitation Centre on high alert.
“We’ve been watching for it closely here in Manitoba, looking for several symptomatic signs in the animals that we see come here to the centre and also in the general population,” said Nakata.
The rehabilitation centre is implementing new procedures to make sure an outbreak doesn’t occur at the facility.
“When people are calling in with injured wildlife, we’re asking some screening questions to know if we need to take any additional biosecurity precautions. We’re sending in some animals for screening at the provincial vet lab,” noted Nakata.
Wildlife Haven is also keeping all of its ambassador animals inside at this time to limit the chance of exposure.
CASES IN FARMS
Even with surveillance, cases are likely to happen in the province.
A poultry farm in Southern Ontario is the latest place in Canada to report cases of the H5N1 avian flu variant.
The variant has also been found at commercial and non-commercial farms in Nova Scotia as well as Newfoundland and Labrador in recent months.
Cases have also been reported across the United States, the closest being a turkey farm in Minnesota on Mar. 26.
“This is something we deal with on a yearly basis in Canada. We haven’t seen cases in multiple provinces yet, but we’ve seen cases across the country,” said Lisa Bishop-Spencer, the director of branding and communications at Chicken Farmers of Canada.
Chicken Farmers of Canada said farmers near infected zones are doing everything they can to prevent the spread.
“Farmers will have to ensure that they are sanitizing vehicles and wheel wells of the cars that go onto the property, changing their foot attire as usual, when they visit premises making sure they know who comes onto and off of the farm,” said Lisa Bishop-Spencer.
When a case is found at a farm, a cull likely happens, with a sanitization and waiting period happening after. An ordeal that Bishop-Spencer says has a large impact on the farmer’s livelihood.
She also stressed that there is no risk when eating poultry.
In a statement to CTV News, a spokesperson for Agriculture Minister Derek Johnson said, “Manitoba poultry and eggs are safe to eat when proper handling and cooking takes place.”
The spokesperson went on to say the province has initiated preparedness and planning discussions with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and has provided an existing provincial avian influenza plan for review.
They added that the chief veterinary office is monitoring the situation.
RISK TO HUMANS
Even with bird flu cases in Canada, the risk to humans remains low.
In an interview with CTV News, Virologist Jason Kindrachuk said human infection is rare and comes from prolonged, close contact with infected birds.
“But I think right now, we have to appreciate that the situation at hand with COVID is still somewhat uncontrolled or fairly uncontrolled across the globe that needs to be our focal point,” said Kindrachuk.
According to Kindrachuk, the more infections in birds, the higher chance the virus has of mutating into something more concerning.
“The more onward transmission we see in animals that are associated with changes in the virus, the more opportunity the virus has and starts to shift to something that can spill over into humans more easily.”
Kindrachuk said even with a case fatality rate of around 50 per cent, human-to-human transmission is much lower than viruses like COVID-19.
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