Canadian Poultry Magazine

Avian Influenza: The fight continues

By Ronda Payne   

Features Disease watch

Avian influenza continued to challenge producers last year, but stakeholders are working on gaining ground.

Mike Bose of Surrey, B.C., had his turkey farm hit with avian influenza this past fall during one of the province’s worst outbreaks. PHOTO CREDIT: Tom Zillich

Farmers know all-too-well how hard it is when viruses strike, and livestock needs to be culled. Avian influenza, in particular, has been an explosive, unpredictable situation for Canadian poultry producers in recent years. It’s heart-wrenching and can be financially devastating, taking years for producers to recover emotionally and financially. 

Mike Bose learned this firsthand. A councillor with the City of Surrey, B.C., and turkey farmer at Medomist Farms, his farm was hit this past fall during one of B.C.’s worst outbreaks. 

“I’ve always been very sympathetic to people who have had to go through this because I know how hard it is,” he says. “I know how devastating it is. Now, having gone through it, you can’t explain it – it’s very stressful.”


Understandably so, as certain parts of Canada continued to see aggressive outbreaks of the virus last year. However, there are positives to be garnered from the situation around the ability to create more collaboration, shared learnings, and communication nationally. 

Quebec and B.C. hit hard
B.C. and Quebec both saw heavy caseloads at different times last year. But Martin Pelletier, general manager of EQCMA (Équipe Québécoise de contrôle des maladies avicoles – The Quebec Poultry Disease Control Team), says emergency management plans have helped in his province. 

“It was in the fall of 2021 when the first case hit the Maritimes,” he says. “Right there, we knew that AI had come across the Atlantic Ocean and might be a threat for us.”

The first Quebec case was in April 2022. By spring of 2023, Quebec had logged nearly one million dead birds due to infection or euthanasia. Fortunately, last fall, the case load, while still potentially active, seemed less aggressive. 

“In the fall, we had four cases,” he says. “We had one case in ducks, two cases in turkeys and one on the site where there were turkeys and broiler chickens. But with these four sites, in total, it was about 150,000 birds.” 

Meanwhile, in B.C. there was a cluster of cases in the spring of 2022 as well and they just kept coming. In December 2023, the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Food noted there were 52 farms infected with AI since October 2023. 

The number of poultry deaths in the province over 2023 reached over five million. More than 2.3 million birds have been destroyed in B.C. since September 1, 2023, says Amanda Brittain, chief information officer for the B.C. Poultry Emergence Operations Centre. 

“There’s a lot of studying and research that needs to be done, but we’ve been in this almost two years now and nobody’s had a chance to breathe,” she says. “I know CFIA is working on it, and I know universities are working on it, but we haven’t had a long enough break to get all the research done.”

B.C farms took a heavy blow
Bose has been farming in Surrey since he was a toddler. “We raise flocks of 9,000. Seven flocks [a year],” he says. “My son and I, we run the farm.”

In mid-November, the birds were doing great. One flock was market-ready, and the other was three weeks old. Suddenly, there was a spike in mortalities. 

His son contacted the sick bird line, and, per instructions, they placed a couple of dead birds in a garbage bag outside the farm’s gate for pick up and inspection. The results were positive for AI and both flocks were destroyed. 

“We always get extremely nervous in the fall,” he says. “This is the first major outbreak of any disease we’ve ever had. We’ve always been able to solve our own problems.”

Theresa Burns, chief veterinarian with the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Food, says the pace of outbreaks in B.C. was faster than in other provinces. 

“We had a small number of cases in the spring of 2022, but in the fall of 2022, we had a cluster of cases start and then we saw the number of outbreaks happen much faster,” she says. “It was different than before. We were aware that it was a higher risk situation than what we saw prior to 2022.”

Bose found it challenging, absorbing all that had happened. From the destruction of the flocks to the clean-up and protocols and the financial losses, it was a significant and painful cost. “There were some very, very dark days when you feel like a complete failure,” he says. “It’s really hard to get your thoughts straight.”

He described the clean-up protocol, including destruction of birds, composting them, dry-cleaning of the barns and recleaning, as “a complicated process, but I think it’s absolutely necessary.”

From destruction of birds to being approved to place a new flock takes two to three months or more. 

Bose feels the weather caused the outbreak at his farm. With fields flooded, wild birds were landing in the water, then winds rolled in and blew across the fields into the curtain-sided barn. 

While this can’t be proven as the cause, Burns says the province plans to address the wild bird component in the future. “We have a fairly robust wild bird program,” she says. “We know we’re on a very important and busy waterfowl migratory route.”

Brittain adds that eliminating standing water like what Bose experienced is important, as it should all be considered infected.

Quebec’s process
EQCMA created colour-coded protocols that have been beneficial to both Quebec and B.C. It’s been just one of the many management tools shared across the country. 

“When AI came about, then, when CFIA informed EQCMA that there is a high-risk submission to the lab, we use our geomatics tool to draw a three-kilometre circle around the area and we issue an enhanced biosecurity alert,” Pelletier says. “We inform the association of who the producers are in that zone and they contact them. They implement the orange code.”

A new code – yellow – will be added in 2024 for high migration periods. 

“There’s a [migration] peak in March/April as well as in October/ November,” he says. 

In addition to colour-code protocols, the association has a third-party provider to conduct CO2 destruction. It also provides some biosecurity supplies and offers an emergency line.

“People know EQCMA so much now, so the line is not much used because they call us directly, which is good,” Pelletier says.

The organization also serves as an information hub between CFIA, associations, producers, and others in the industry like hatcheries and abattoirs. CFIA alerts and zones can be loaded into the geomatics tool and lists are created to ensure those in alert regions are updated. The website is another important tool with information about survival of AI in the environment and sanitation. 

“We recognize that we should have more than one tool in our toolbox,” he says. 

Getting to the source
Jean-Pierre Vaillancourt, professor at the faculty of veterinary medicine at the University of Montreal, says wild waterfowl are the principal source. He adds that there are at least 273 bird species found to have AI and at least 40 species of mammalians (not including the recent finding of polar bears). 

“The commercial flocks that are at greater risk are turkey flocks and duck flocks,” he explains. “It’s a major issue whenever you see ducks. That’s why they are vaccinating ducks in France.”

Leading the concerns is the fact that AI is changing at an alarming rate, making it much more challenging than it may have been in previous outbreaks. Additionally, as Vaillancourt explains, the virus has mutated to complete one of the four steps required to become zoonotic – able to transmit to humans. 

“There are four steps for this virus to become the equivalent of a nuclear bomb,” he says. “We’ve reached the first one. We’re far from having this being the next COVID, but anybody that would say there is no risk that this could happen is either ignorant or lying. That’s why we need to control it as quickly as possible.”

Going forward
Biosecurity is job one, Brittain says, noting B.C. farms have been put under restrictions to eliminate the concerns of farm-to-farm transfer. Producers are adapting.  

“There is virtually no lateral farm-to-farm transfer,” she says. “Changing your clothes or putting on coveralls to completely cover your clothes is very, very common. Farmers seem to be the most resilient people I’ve met in my entire life. They want to make sure that British Columbians have access to locally grown food.”

Burns says a combination of governments, associations and farmers ensure biosecurity remains top of mind, but adds that the B.C. lab’s speed and farmer responses have ensured positive strides forward. 

“I’m seeing really strong collaboration between the CFIA, the poultry industry and governments to deal with this,” she says. “The challenge is we don’t exactly know what the avian influenza virus is going to do in the future. If we continue to have these outbreaks for more than one or two more years, that puts a big strain on everyone who is involved in outbreak response.”

Testing wild birds is ongoing and the industry remains vigilant. 

Vaillancourt says B.C., Alberta and Quebec are the provinces with the most movement of the virus now and that EQCMA and others in the industry will be sharing knowledge. 

“Nobody is better positioned to provide information about the industry than industry people themselves,” he says. “I’m hoping we’ll be able to do some research [in B.C.] within days or weeks to do a case control study.”

Avian influenza has caused a lot of pain and losses in the poultry industry. However, it has also created stronger communication channels, improving information sharing and creating a borderless team to find solutions. 

One positive case
In an AI surveillance zone, producers are required to put all mortalities at the road for testing. Cornelis (Corry) Spitters, owner Oranya Farms, was surprised when a single bird from one of his Aldergrove, B.C., barns came back positive for the disease in early December.

“To my knowledge, they tested the barns, but not a single [other] result came back positive,” he says. “Regardless, our farm was deemed for destruction. We have no recourse.”

The birds were destroyed, staged for composting in the barn, sanitation completed, and a new flock was scheduled for placement February 12. It’s one of the fastest turnarounds seen in B.C. But this speed can’t begin to compensate for the losses. 

“We place, on average, anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 birds a day, four days a week,” he says. “That particular farm – there’s 42 levels of production there. Placements are going to be placed over the next 17 weeks to fill that farm back up again.”

He estimates his losses at over a million dollars after being reimbursed for the birds themselves. Labour, utilities, mortgage payments all continued during the clean up after the destruction. He feels that when there are no exceptional signs of mortality, a deeper dive should be conducted, but he will continue his operation. 

“We have no choice but to continue,” he says. “People are scared. We’ve got to stay the course.”

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