Bird Flu on the Rise Across Canada, Current H5N1 Strain ‘Behaving Very Differently’

British Columbia officials have stated bird flu cases are piling up across Canada, North America and Europe. This current H5N1 strain is said to be more troublesome than previous versions and is now becoming an unprecedented challenge for scientists and farmers.

British Columbia chief veterinarian Theresa Burns said the current H5N1 strain is ”behaving very differently” and that it is not isolated in geography, unlike previous strains. She stated that the scale of this outbreak is completely different than before. Talking about previous outbreaks from 2014, 2009, and 2004, she said, “In all those other outbreaks, B.C. was the only province impacted, and it was only in the Fraser Valley. Now we’re seeing all across Canada, North America and Europe impacted.”

In Canada, as of November 3, 200 flocks with more than 3.5 million birds have been infected in Canada. It has also been noted that wild bird deaths are also spiking, which is worrying for experts. Earl Brown, a flu virologist at the University of Ottawa shared that this H5N1 strain is “causing increased mortalities in many of our wild bird species, and when it gets into poultry flocks, it’s also causing increased mortality.”

Meanwhile, Burns said actual numbers may be even more than estimated as they have to first find a carcass, send it to the lab, and then it gets tested. Farmers are also worried that the virus is becoming endemic in wild bird populations.

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Ray Nickel, spokesman for the B.C. Poultry Association Emergency Operations Centre points out that the scale of the spread of H5N1 has made farmers, CFIA, and various levels of government work together toward a common goal. “(Communication) is way bigger this year than ever. Discussions are now happening on a national and international basis, rather than just on an individual provincial basis,” he said.

Nickel also feels that the heightened level of concern around biosecurity has increased even more, not just in B.C., but across the country.

According to Burns, as of now, Canada’s policy on dealing with bird flu is to euthanize when the virus is detected in a flock. Because of this outbreak, officials are also considering a vaccine as a solution. “Given the unprecedented nature of this outbreak, certainly vaccination is being revisited as a possible control strategy internationally,” said Burns.

Vineet Washington

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