As cases of avian flu continue to spread across Canada, B.C. poultry farmers are implementing quarantine measures to protect their chickens from the highly infectious virus that can cause mass death.
So far, an estimated 1.7 million birds have been euthanized or killed by the virus in Canada, with the majority of infected animals in Alberta and Ontario. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said at least 68 poultry farms have been affected by the virus across the country.
Guenter Rieger, who owns and operates Rieger Farms in Armstrong, B.C., said in his 25 years of poultry farming not one of his chickens has come down with the highly infectious virus, thanks to a combination of diligence and common sense.
He's now donning full PPE around the animals and asking customers who come to pick up eggs to stay in their cars, far from the chicken coops.
"When you go into your barn you use different clothes, use different shoes, you wash your hands, you wear gloves," he said, adding the key is to keep chickens away from wild birds, like geese and ducks, that spread the virus.
"Keep the feed inside, keep the water inside so you cannot cross-contaminate any disease with your animals."
People across B.C. have been warned to remove outdoor bird feeders and birdbaths, which can encourage disease transmission by causing birds of different species to come into close contact.
The province is urging poultry farmers to be vigilant and put preventative measures in place by eliminating contact with wild birds, reducing human access to the flock and increasing cleaning and sanitization.
Confirmed avian flu outbreaks in B.C. in 2022
B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham says commercial poultry farmers and anyone with a flock of more than 100 birds is under a provincial order to keep the birds inside. The province has also temporarily banned the co-mingling of birds at events like auctions where they are sold.
Popham said when a bird is infected, the ministry notifies other poultry farmers within 12 kilometres.
There is no current risk to British Columbians buying locally produced eggs and chicken, she added.
She said the infection rate follows the migration of wild birds from the U.S. to B.C. and the threat will start to decrease by the end of May when that migration period ends.
"We're just trying to get through it with the least mortalities as possible," said Popham, speaking Tuesday on The Early Edition.
Shayan Sharif, a professor with the University of Guelph and the Ontario Veterinary Clinic, said avian flu is shed from nasal and oral secretions and bird droppings and easily jumps from one bird species to another. He said the current strain — known as H5N1 — is spreading at an alarming rate in the U.S. where 37 million chickens and turkeys have died.
"It's not necessarily more deadly, but what has happened over the last little while is we've noticed it's been spreading quite rapidly and the extent of its spread is not something we've seen before," said Sharif.
"It is, indeed, quite unprecedented but it doesn't appear to be more deadly for domestic poultry."
According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, symptoms include tremors, lack of co-ordination, swelling around the head, neck and eyes, lack of energy, coughing, gasping for air, diarrhea or sudden death.
When avian flu is detected in a flock, the surviving birds are usually destroyed to avoid further spread. In late April, a suspected case of avian flu wiped out 80 per cent of one West Kootenay farmer's flock before the rest were euthanized.
In B.C., new cases have also been identified in a backyard poultry flock in Kelowna. A bald eagle found in Delta also tested positive for the virus, making it the second bald eagle to test positive, after one in Vancouver in February.
Sharif said while there is always a degree of concern that the virus could jump from animals to humans, the risk remains low and eating properly cooked turkey, chicken, and eggs remains safe.
"This virus has not undergone significant mutations," he said.
"Based on the level of spread of this virus in B.C. and other provinces, it doesn't seem to be having a significant amount of impact on the poultry industry in the short term."
Sick birds should be reported to the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development at 250-751-3234 in B.C., or the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative at 1-800-567-2033.