Avian flu returns to Sask. after more than 10 years

·4 min read
Lorraine Bryan, a pathologist from the Western and Northern Region of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, performs an autopsy at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine office in Saskatoon. The bird is presumed to have avian flu. (Submitted by Trent Bollinger - image credit)
Lorraine Bryan, a pathologist from the Western and Northern Region of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, performs an autopsy at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine office in Saskatoon. The bird is presumed to have avian flu. (Submitted by Trent Bollinger - image credit)

Avian influenza has been detected in Saskatchewan poultry farms and wild birds in the past couple weeks.

On Monday, the Government of Saskatchewan announced the highly contagious disease was confirmed in two poultry flocks days after the province introduced an animal health control area to protect chickens from catching the virus.

One farm, which has a small flock in the rural municipality of Moose Creek, east of Estevan, detected the flu Thursday. A commercial flock, in the rural municipality of Loreburn, south of Saskatoon, detected it on Saturday.

"You kind of suspected that it was going to happen," said Graham Snell, executive director of Chicken Farmers of Saskatchewan, which represents 72 broiler poultry farms in the province.

He said people are likely to beef up security to better protect their chickens, although that security is already strict.

Saskatchewan imposed an animal health control order to limit the co-mingling of poultry and cut the risk of exposure.

It prohibits birds from entering shows, auctions or other events where they would be brought to multiple locations and is in place until May 14.

Saskatchewan said this strain of avian flu does not pose a food safety risk, but regular food safety precautions should be followed when preparing wild game.

Highly contagious avian flu

The flu now affecting birds in Saskatchewan is a severe strain of influenza that has mingled genes from Eurasia and North America, according to Dr. Trent Bollinger, a professor at Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) and a pathologist.

Bollinger said that the severity of the disease, which he says is the H5N1 strain, depends on the species.

The professor said smaller poultry farms are more vulnerable to the virus because of less strict security measures. However, larger farms can still contract the virus.

In 2007, the last time avian flu appeared in commercial poultry or wild birds the province, all 50,000 birds at the Pedigree Poultry farm in Regina Beach were gassed with carbon dioxide when a strain of the influenza was discovered.

The Canada Food Inspection Agency said Monday that avian flu had been detected at 41 premises across the country, with a combined 700,000 birds affected, since December 2021.

"All provinces are experiencing the same influx of birds to diagnostic labs and investigating die-offs similar to what we're seeing in Saskatchewan," Bollinger said.

"We don't yet know how many have been infected and have survived but this is an unusual level of mortality for avian influenza virus strains in North America. Typically, they are less virulent than this."

Submitted by Trent Bollinger
Submitted by Trent Bollinger

Bollinger said the WCVM lab that performs autopsies on the birds has examined more than 50 so far, with more coming soon. Influenza appears to be the most common culprit.

He advised people to submit the carcasses of dead birds to the lab because, while birds may be dying from influenza, it could also be other issues like avian cholera.

There's no evidence that humans are susceptible to the virus, but he said anyone submitting carcasses should minimize direct contact with the birds and wear gloves and a mask.

Hundreds of dead birds found

On April 8, the same day avian flu was detected in Saskatchewan, Paule Hjertaas stumbled across an area between Kronau and Richardson, southeast of Regina, layered with dead birds.

"At first we thought, 'perhaps they got poisoned,' and as we kept looking we found more in the fields and in various other places," she said.

"I was a bit taken aback ... it looked terrible."

The province said in a press release that avian flu strains don't typically show signs of disease in wild birds, but this strain has killed some, including snow geese, Canada geese and some raptor-type birds, like ravens or crows.

She came back days later to get a better look with some others, she said. Her husband counted about 180 dead birds and more than a dozen that appeared to be dying.

Bollinger thinks it's likely the birds died of the flu.

Concerns about bird feeders

Iga Stasiak, the provincial wildlife health specialist, said bird feeders are also a concern.

"This is a virus that can be spread, and accelerated, by animals congregating around feeding sites," she said.

While noting that bird feeders can be a concern, Stasiak also said there aren't many reports of songbirds being infected.

It's primarily waterfowl catching the flu, she said, but "this is a very new strain of this virus and we're still learning quite a lot and we're not quite sure of the breadth or the extent of the species that might be impacted."

She recommended cleaning the feeders, disinfecting them with a bleach and water solution (one part bleach, nine parts water) and cleaning the feeder to prevent transmission.

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