Biosecurity is still key to preventing avian influenza from infecting commercial flocks, but we are still learning how to best manage outbreaks
The avian influenza outbreak in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley in 2004 was a game-changer for Canada and how it handles a large-scale foreign animal disease outbreak.
Up until that point, Canada’s Foreign Animal Disease emergency plans had been largely unchanged and untested since the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in 1952. Consequently, when H7N3 AI hit the Fraser Valley in the spring of 2004, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the industry was unprepared, and the virus spread quickly. When the outbreak was finally over, flocks from 42 commercial farms and over 500 backyard flocks had been destroyed.
A 2005 report from Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food revealed that the CFIA recognized its shortcomings in the handling of the 2004 outbreak and set a path for it to move forward with the development of more effective FAD plans, and most importantly, the recognition that it needs to work with industry stakeholders and provincial governments in order for these plans to be executed successfully.
The fall-out from the 2004 AI outbreak and lessons learned has been beneficial for the Canadian poultry industry to be able to effectively contain subsequent AI incidents, and this was obvious during the H5N2 AI outbreak in North America in late 2014 and the spring of 2015.
H5N2 came to North America last year in a highly-pathogenic form (HPAI), rather than mutating into a HPAI from a low-pathogenic AI (LPAI), as happened in the 2004 B.C. outbreak.
The virus breached 11 farms in B.C. in December 2014 before it was contained, and three farms in Ontario in April 2015. The U.S., however, did not fare as well. By July 2015, over 200 farms in 15 states had been infected and 49 million birds were dead or destroyed. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was admittedly overwhelmed and has been doing its own analysis on what went wrong and how it can move forward. Considering the magnitude of the U.S. outbreak, how did Canada fare so well? “The U.S. had never had a dress rehearsal,” says Dr. Sandra Stephens, a Veterinary Program Specialist with the CFIA, who spoke at the recent Poultry Service Industry Workshop (PSIW) in Banff. “It helps to have had to live through [an outbreak].” As Canada did in 2004, she says the U.S. underestimated the virus.
In an initial “lessons learned” meeting after the virus was contained, the USDA recognized that emergency response planning is critical and that communications are critical at all levels, and appropriate contacts must be established prior to any organized response.
Since 2004, Stephens says the CFIA has had a mandate to actively engage with all stakeholders. It’s adapted an Incident Command system to coordinate emergency response, and it’s paid off. The B.C. poultry industry noted a much improved working relationship with the CFIA as compared to 2004, which further helped to contain the outbreak to only 11 farms.
Edward Malek, CFIA Ontario Operational Specialist – Animal Health told attendees of the Poultry Industry Council’s Health Day that having a CFIA Incident Command, in addition to the Feather Board Command Centre (a centralized emergency response for the Ontario feather boards), was instrumental in helping Ontario minimize the effects of HPAI.
However, despite having made much improvement in responding to AI outbreaks since 2004, there is still much to be learned from each subsequent outbreak.
One of the biggest challenges revealed from the Ontario outbreak, says Malek, is data sharing, says. “So much electronic data is not transportable, shareable, or moveable.” Nearly every stakeholder involved was using a different data system, and firewalls also presented challenges, he says.
Despite this, Malek says the CFIA had a commitment from the feather boards that if it needed information, they would provide it. Considering the first infected farm was identified on Easter weekend, “this is what got us through the process very quickly,” he says.
However, Malek says the data sharing process needs to be more streamlined. The data on farm locations, for example, needs to be analyzed and is used by the CFIA to determine which farms are within a quarantine zone. In several instances the CFIA was given incorrect information, and properties they thought were within the five kilometre quarantine zone were actually within a 20 kilometre zone and not under quarantine. This was not discovered until CFIA staff drove out to the farms. “This is part of validation process, and it takes time,” he says.
Data also needs to be updated frequently, he says. Its important that the CFIA knows what products are coming in or leaving the farms in real time.
Document control was also identified by Malek as an area that needs improvement. During an outbreak, numerous documents are circulated amongst stakeholders, and yet often it was found that not everyone was working with the same version of a document at the same time. Malek says a document number system needs to be in place so that “everyone is on the same page.”
Malek also suggests the development of templates, particularly for license applications to move products. He says there has been discussion post-outbreak of developing a multiple application process, so that each sector fills out one application to apply for multiple licenses.
It’s helpful that the marketing boards have written procedures for enhanced biosecurity situations, but Malek says that they must be effective and followed. “There is no use having written procedures if only half of your producers know what it is and can understand it,” says Malek.
According to Malek, “much more work” needs to be done with regards to cleaning and disinfecting (C&D). In Ontario, it only took four weeks to perform disposal and destruction, but seven to eight weeks to do C&D. The biggest hurdle to C&D, says Malek, is that no one wants to go in and do the cleaning. “Well guess what? The whole industry suffers when it takes another three to four weeks to get back to business.”
Ontario was able to limit the outbreak to three farms for a multitude of reasons, but that doesn’t mean if HPAI strikes again the province will fare as well, says Malek. “We got lucky,” he says.
A lot of it had to do with self-declaration. “We had really great farmers that called when they noticed their birds were not right,” he says. The virus also struck in a low-density poultry area of the province, and examination of the flight patterns of migratory waterfowl revealed that the majority of these birds had already left the area by the time the first premise tested positive.
Ontario, like B.C., also has a “top-notch” animal health laboratory that expedited testing of samples, he says.
Fortunately for the Ontario poultry industry, no hatchery, processing plant, or breeder/pullet farms was within the avian influenza control zones, but it has forced the industry to consider a lot of “what ifs”, says Malek. “There are so many.”
For example, the Ontario poultry industry needs to be able to answer questions such as what the implication would be if a feed mill, hatchery, or poultry processor were in a restricted zone, and how, or if they would be able to supply customers.
A question that’s never had to be asked before, says Malek, is how to move product and import product if the U.S. experiences another massive AI outbreak. This past spring, the number of mid-western U.S. states with restricted zones was so vast Western Canadian provinces were forced to transport breeder chicks from U.S. hatcheries via Ontario. Fortunately, the hatcheries were located in states unaffected or minimally affected by the outbreak, but plans need to be in place in case this is not the reality in a future outbreak. Mexico is not a viable option, as AI has been endemic there for the past four years.
Under NAFTA, Canada is obligated to bring in a certain about of table eggs, yet the AI outbreak caused a shortage in the U.S. leading to elevated prices. “When we found eggs, we couldn’t afford them,” says Malek.
Having plans is important, says Malek, and the industry has had, and is continuing to have the necessary conversations to address the “what ifs.” “The key is we have to keep working on this, and thinking of how we can do better.”
BIOSECURITY IS KEY
As Dr. Stephens told attendees at the PSIW, preventing AI from hitting a farm in the first place or spreading from farm to farm is “really about biosecurity, biosecurity, biosecurity.” In her opinion, the B.C. poultry industry demonstrated this well during the 2014 outbreak. “Producers took it seriously. They really upped their game.”
She says that there also needs to be “recognition that there is no such thing as enhanced biosecurity. You must be at superenhanced biosecurity”, because, she says, we don’t fully know where the virus is coming from. “It’s dropping from the sky.”
Keeping accurate, up-to-date premises log is essential for helping understand where the virus may have come from, and where it may go. It allows the CFIA to do traceback and becomes “a critical component in determining what our next steps will be,” says Stephens. “I can never overstate how important premises logs are,” she says.