Bird flu in St. John's may spread to North America

·4 min read

For Jim Lester, having to slaughter every feathered animal on his farm last month because of the avian flu virus was a unique experience in more ways than one.

“It’s the first time in 20-odd years that I’ve had to buy a dozen eggs from the store,” he said in an interview Friday, Jan. 7.

Lester’s Farm received a seize-and-destroy order from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) on Dec. 21 after the federal regulator found the H5N1 strain of the virus in several of his birds.

Lester said he didn’t realize the virus had already been detected in a gull at Mundy Pond the month before until he noticed several of his feathered friends started dropping dead.

“If we had known that gull was present in the environment, we would have done something to ensure that our animals didn’t become exposed to wild ducks, because wild ducks come and go everywhere,” he said.

Lester had kept some laying hens, mostly for personal use. Most of the birds on the farm were there for show. They included emus, peacocks, several types of ducks, geese, guinea fowl, and a variety of hens that laid eggs of varying colours.

“They weren’t your run-of-the-mill chickens that you’d buy from your grocery store,” he said.

Lester also had turkeys at another site, but they were processed and sold before the outbreak.

Lester said the strain of virus detected is not as big a threat to humans as some other pathogens.

“Depending on what virus it was, there was even a possibility that the pigs on site would also have to be depopulated because the pigs, with some viruses, can actually be a vector, from birds to pigs, from pigs to people. Fortunately, the virus that was identified on our farm was not a high interspecies pathogen,” he said.

However, the World Organization for Animal Health (abbreviated OIE for its original moniker, Office International des Épizooties), did say this week the recent spread of the virus in Europe is cause for alarm because variants may prove more transmissible to humans.

"This time the situation is more difficult and more risky because we see more variants emerge, which make them harder to follow," OIE director general Monique Eloit told Reuters news agency on Wednesday.

For now, transmission to humans, while often deadly, is still rare — about 850 cases in the past 20 years.

Lester said most of those occur in poorly regulated poultry processing because the virus is strongest in the intestines of the bird.

While factory farming is considered more cruel and shunned by many customers, it’s less prone to influenza infiltration because the birds are not exposed to the wild.

“There is more pressure to produce food in more of a natural environment,” Lester said. “Well, this virus definitely presents a huge challenge to keep birds, in particular, safe from this pathogen.”

The worst news is that the appearance of the virus in St. John’s will likely mean North America will now have to be as vigilant as Europe has been in recent years.

“Where Newfoundland is kind of a lily pad for migrational birds, it’s quite possible that all of North America could be affected in a very short period of time,” said Lester, who added the virus was likely carried by a stray European species such as the pink-footed goose.

Poultry farmers in a 10-kilometre radius of St. John’s have been warned by the CFIA to take mitigation measures to avoid spread. Larger producers already employ strict hygiene and sterilization procedures.

“While this detection should have no impact on trade, it does serve as a strong reminder that avian influenza is spreading across the globe, and that anyone with farm animals must practise good biosecurity habits,” the agency said in a memo last month.

Lester said he’s not out of the bird business, although the bad publicity has had an impact.

“The only part of our operation that’s in quarantine is the barn and the area where the birds were housed, but what I’m running up against is that everyone thinks that my whole farm is quarantined, and business is kind of dropping as quickly as the birds did,” he said.

“People are safer here than they are at Bowring Park, because Bowring Park has thousands of birds and quite possibly thousands of infections.”

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram

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