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Alberta's avian influenza outbreak 'unprecedented,' says vet

It is a “a scary time,” says veterinarian, Dr. Teryn Girard, who has clients in areas with avian influenza.
Laurel Weigum, who since 2016 has alongside husband Lyle operated full-time a mid-size turkey farm called Winter's that raises three flocks a year in the southeast corner of Rocky View County, is anxious about the possibility of the unfolding avian influenza outbreak reaching their operation. Submitted photo

MOUNTAIN VIEW COUNTY, ALBERTA — As poultry producers continue to brace for the outbreak of avian influenza in the province, a Red Deer-based veterinarian who is a member of the Alberta Poultry Emergency Management Team said the situation is without precedent.

“I’m comfortable saying this is unprecedented,” Dr. Teryn Girard said April 2. “We haven’t had avian influenza in Alberta previously.”

A veterinarian who serves the poultry industry, many of Girard’s clients are located within identified infected zones, which include operations in Mountain View County in Central Alberta.

“There are two commercial farms in Mountain View County that were affected,” she said, adding the virus was also discovered in a backyard flock near Torrington.

The Alberta Poultry Emergency Management Team is working with the provincial government alongside the Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to mitigate the contagion’s spread in the province.

“As a veterinarian, we’re trained in the off chance that it may come up,” said Girard about a bird flu outbreak.

“We were aware that it could happen this year because we’ve been seeing it happen throughout the States and other places in Canada,” she said. “But it’s still a shock. And it’s hard on the producer. It’s a scary time.”

'We were hit quite hard in the first week'

Asked approximately where the rate of transmission stood — in other words whether the curve is trending up, plateauing or perhaps even declining — she said the data wasn’t yet painting a clear picture.

“I don’t think we know where we’re at yet” in terms of the disease’s progression, she said. “We were hit quite hard in the first week.”

And it was only into the outbreak’s second week when she spoke with the Albertan.

“I think right now, speaking for myself and the producers I work with everyday, we’re just waiting to hear what’s going on,” she said.

As of April 25, cases have been detected in 17 poultry flocks in the province – four in Mountain View County.

The combined efforts of the CFIA, the emergency management team, as well as Alberta’s poultry industry are doing everything possible to not only contain but also resolve the situation, she said.

“The Alberta government lab has been working endless hours to make sure that samples are run and surveillance is being done,” she said. “Everybody’s working so quickly to eradicate the disease as fast as they can. The CFIA has been great to work with.”

The agency determines where and when to establish a Primary Control Zone in areas where the disease has been identified, with affected properties within a zone subject to certain restrictions including the movement of animals.

Asked whether for example cattle or dairy producers face restrictions, Maria Leslie, marketing and communications specialist for the Alberta Chicken Producers, said, "The answer is effectively no for those other non-poultry commodities.”

However, those operations would nevertheless likely be enhancing their biosecurity in light of the situation. And the agency would make a call for non-poultry commodities on a premises where the virus was found if, for example, a farm raises both cattle and poultry, said Leslie.

'Response has not been lacking'

At all levels, Girard said the response has not been lacking.

“I think that the support is there,” she said. “It’s just a really trying time for everybody and ultimately, it’s the producers that are still taking care of the birds and maintaining biosecurity and producing food.”

In terms of the estimated overall dollar value represented by the loss of entire flocks that have been decimated, she said such figures were also not yet available.

“The main priority now is getting rid of the disease,” she said, adding that beyond that, the emergency management team will help affected farmers make sure every avenue for potential compensation is explored.

“Poultry farmers will be compensated according to the Health of Animals Act,” she said, adding compensation will depend on variables such as the age and type of the bird.

When impacted producers might anticipate their operations to return to a level of normalcy remains something of an open question at this point.

“As soon as they have a confirmed case, they begin working with CFIA,” she said. “As a poultry industry, we’re here to help make sure that we respond as quickly as we can to cases and then what needs to be done going forward. But really, the timeline’s going to come down to the CFIA for the affected producers.”

No immediate effects on consumers

But for the time being at least, the unfolding situation is not expected to have any immediate ripple effects on consumers, such as reduced stock on shelves or even outright shortages.

“There is currently no issue with supply yet, and I don’t see a supply issue coming. Meat and egg products are still available in the correct quantities,” she said. “But it depends on how many cases we’re going to have coming down the line.”

Sharing some parting thoughts, Girard expressed uncertainty as to whether the general public fully understands “just how hard this has been on Alberta producers and how hard they’re working to keep flocks safe.”

That effort also involves ensuring there’s still an adequate supply of poultry meat and egg products available, she said.

“These farmers are typically family operations that wake up everyday nervous right now,” she said.

And meanwhile, farmers that to date have not been directly affected by the discovery of the virus in their flock are also nervous, she said.

Laurel Weigum, who since 2016 has alongside husband Lyle operated full-time a mid-size turkey farm called Winter's that raises three flocks a year in the southeast corner of Rocky View County, is one such farmer.

“This is my family farm,” said Weigum. “There’s been turkeys here on this farm since ’56.”

The situation is unlike anything she’s ever experienced.

“As livestock producers, you certainly face challenges over the years,” she said. “There’s been pockets of (avian influenza) in Canada over the years, but this is the the first time that it’s been detected in Alberta.”

As of yesterday, H5N1 was detected in one poultry flock in Rocky View County.

'Raising a healthy bird is your priority'

“It’s challenging for all poultry farmers, because you care about your animals and raising a healthy bird is your priority,” said Weigum. “So, it’s distressing when a disease threatens the health of your birds and your livelihood.”

Considering the disease is believed to be spread by migratory birds and that Alberta is in the midst of migratory season, the risk of continued spread remains, she said.

“It’s certainly possible that we’ll have more cases in the days and weeks to come because this is a very contagious disease,” she said. “So, alongside our already very strict biosecurity practices, farmers have taken extra measures to manage the spread and will continue to do so while the risk is high.”

Pressed to elaborate on what those additional precautions involve, she said no efforts are being spared.

“We’re going above and beyond,” she said, adding there are extensive ongoing efforts to clean and sanitize as well as limit movement with the end goal of doing everything possible to mitigate the contagion’s spread.

“We’re not just changing shoes, we’re changing clothes. We’re not just washing tires, we’re washing trucks,” she said. “And you’re limiting movement of people and equipment in and out of those barns so that the opportunity for spread is minimized.”  

Under the challenging circumstances and considering the logistical hurdles involved, she also said the provincial and federal governments’ combined response and support for the industry has not been in short supply.

“The support is there,” she said. “It’s slower than you want, it’s harder than you want it to be. But the support is there.”

The simple fact of the matter, she added, is that nobody even knew there was a case of bird flu in the province barely more than two weeks ago and there were as of late last week a dozen Primary Control Zones in Alberta.

“So, mobilizing crews and equipment, it’s just challenging. But we’re in our stride now I think.”

Simon Ducatel

About the Author: Simon Ducatel

Simon Ducatel joined Mountain View Publishing in 2015 after working for the Vulcan Advocate since 2007, and graduated among the top of his class from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology's journalism program in 2006.
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