As bird flu devastates a growing number of poultry farms in B.C., wildlife experts are raising the alarm about the deadly virus’ impact on wild animals and possible threat of it turning into another pandemic among humans.
The virus, known as avian influenza or H5N1, has spread to some birds of prey in the province, as well as skunks, experts say.
One Abbotsford, B.C., wildlife rescuer said her centre has been inundated by calls to help an overwhelming number of birds recently — with rigorous disinfecting measures significantly raising costs and workload.
“The symptoms are horrible for these guys, and there’s so many dead and dying all over the place,” Elizabeth Melnick, founder of Elizabeth’s Wildlife Center, told CBC News inside her rescue clinic. “It is really bad.”
So far, she’s only seen geese and ducks carrying the virus, but the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) says the current strain has been seen in skunks, foxes and marine animals.
Little can be done to help birds brought into her care, Melnick noted, except euthanizing them.
“There’s nothing you can do. There’s not a treatment,” Melnick said. “Just as you get everything all changed and thrown away and sanitized, the phone rings and you’ve got to start over again.
“It just goes on and on.”
Risk of human pandemic
According to the BCCDC, North America’s current avian influenza strain is a contagious viral infection that mainly impacts birds “but can infect humans and other mammals.”
The agency said it spreads through direct contact with infected animals or remains. But so far, it emphasized, H5N1 has not spread to any British Columbians.
“While avian influenza viruses usually do not infect humans and cannot spread easily from person-to-person, we are monitoring closely,” the BCCDC said in a statement Friday.
As the virus spreads more widely among birds and mammals, however, the agency said it is being vigilant about “the potential for human exposure,” as well as “concerns that the virus could adapt to infect humans more easily.”
The rising number of cases is also alarming for researchers and government officials, who are collaborating and sharing information through the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC) — a cross-Canada network of experts that also partners with the country’s five veterinary colleges and the British Columbia Animal Health Centre.
While millions of birds have had to be killed, humans have so far been “really lucky,” CWHC CEO Damien Joly said in an interview from his home in Nanaimo, B.C.
“But every time there’s a human that is exposed to this virus, we run another chance of the virus evolving and adapting to be able to spread in humans,” the wildlife biologist said. “It has that potential.”
In addition to its obvious threat to millions of farm poultry and the risk of it mutating into a human pandemic, he said wildlife researchers are also deeply concerned about wild species at risk.
Although there is no vaccine or cure for infected animals, an experimental immunization has been attempted on endangered California condors — one of the raptors so far known to be at risk of infection.
“It’s an experiment, so we’ll see how it goes,” Joly said.
But even if a vaccine is effective “it’s just not something that we would be able to to implement on any kind of scale.” Instead, the solution is stricter security measures to keep farm animals away from wildlife, he said.
According to the B.C. Poultry Association, a non-profit which represents more than 500 chicken and turkey operations in the province, the virus is spreading quickly.
In just the last month, 32 poultry farms have been hit by the virus — affecting chickens, ducks and turkeys. Most are in the Fraser Valley, where migrating waterfowl are often the source.
“We’re in peak fall migration right now … so as they come through the Fraser Valley, they are spreading the virus,” association spokesperson Amanda Brittain said in an interview Friday. “If avian influenza is found on a farm, it is quite devastating.”
She said the virus is fatal for all infected birds, and entire flocks must be culled to prevent its spread. Once an infection is reported, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency takes over.
Not only does the farmer lose their entire flock, Brittain said, but all traces of the virus must be eliminated before any new birds can replace the culled ones.
“I can’t even describe the devastation of losing all your flock,” she said. “It is mentally very difficult and financially challenging.
“Farmers that have not been personally impacted by the virus, their anxiety and stress levels are through the roof as they’re trying to keep the virus out of their barns.”
But Brittain said that, thanks to rigorous regulations, consumers need not fear catching the virus from poultry on the butcher or grocery shelves.
“I don’t want to downplay it for the individual farmer — it is devastating — but for the average consumer they’re not going to see much difference at the grocery store,” she said.
Solving the problem is a vexing one for both farmers and wildlife experts.
For rescuers, like Melnick, it’s a taxing and seemingly intractable problem.
“I don’t know if anybody really knows what the solution is,” she said. “Our resources are extremely limited.”