Officials investigating an outbreak of avian influenza at four Fraser Valley poultry farms gained several key pieces of information this week as they seek to stop the virus in its tracks.
The outbreak, which has already killed thousands of birds at farms in Abbotsford and Chilliwack, has been identified as a highly pathogenic (or “high path”) H5N2 strain with a three- to five-day incubation period, officials announced Thursday.
“It is very contagious and showing high mortality amongst the poultry population,” said CFIA’s chief veterinary officer, Dr. Harpreet Kochhar on Thursday.
They also confirmed that preliminary test results from two broiler breeder chicken farms quarantined Wednesday had been deemed “presumptive positive” for the virus and the chickens will be euthanized.
On Tuesday, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced avian influenza had been detected at farms in Abbotsford and Chilliwack eight kilometres apart, following a large number of bird deaths at the two sites over the weekend.
By the following afternoon, the majority of the 11,000 turkeys that had come in contact with the virus had died. Of the 7,000 chickens affected, 1,000 had died by Tuesday. The rest will be destroyed, as will 17,000 healthy birds in two adjacent barns at the turkey farm.
“It’s a big impact to the families and the farms,” said Dr. Jane Pritchard, chief veterinarian officer with the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture.
The newly quarantined farms are located between the original two locations. One is located in Abbotsford, the other is in Chilliwack. Both received birds last Friday from the Chilliwack chicken farm, prior to the discovery of avian influenza there earlier this week.
While several Asian countries have placed restrictions on poultry imports from Canada, health officials and industry representatives have stressed that the virus does not pose a substantial danger to humans, even those who come in direct contact with it.
“It’s safe to eat turkeys, chickens and eggs,” said BC Poultry Association president Ray Nickel. Birds heading to market from farms within the surveillance zone will be tested for the virus, he added.
Humans who do not have consistent contact with infected birds are not at risk, and even when the virus does transfer to humans, the symptoms are mild, Kochar said.
There have been at least two recent previous outbreaks of the H5N2 strain in Canada, but both of those were of a low-path version of the virus.
In 2010, 8,200 birds were culled when the virus was found at a Manitoba turkey breeder. And in 2009, the discovery of a low path version of the virus on two farms led to the destruction of some 72,000 birds.
The 2004 avian flu outbreak that led to the slaughter of 17 million birds in the Fraser Valley was a highly pathogenic H7N3 strain.
Pritchard also expressed confidence that the outbreak will be contained, noting that the high path characteristic of the disease ensures it will not go undetected.
“When it hits, it hits hard and we’re going to be able to find it,” she said. “Our current focus is going farm by farm … to see if there’s any spread.”
Pritchard credited said the poultry industry for taking the initiative after the virus was identified on the farms and said the industry and the province has learned from past experiences with animal diseases, including the 2004 outbreak.
At its East Abbotsford location, the CFIA has established a joint emergency operations centre, with officials from both the provincial and federal governments working together to contain the virus. Pritchard said personnel have poured into the centre in recent days to the point where they are running out of space.
Compensation is available to the farmers affected, but it won’t fully cover the costs stemming from the flu both for the poultry farms where the virus was found and dozens of nearby operations in what could be a three-kilometre surveillance zone around the affected sites.
On Wednesday, several Asian countries announced restrictions on the importation of poultry products.
Hong Kong announced that it had banned poultry meat and eggs from the Fraser Valley following the discovery of avian flu at farms in Chilliwack and Abbotsford. The city has also recently banned poultry products from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom following H5N8 avian flu outbreaks in those countries.
South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have also imposed restrictions on poultry products from B.C. or Canada.
The following video includes footage from a Wednesday press conference.