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'Extra vigilant': Sask. poultry farmers increase safety measures in light of avian flu outbreak

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Deadly avian influenza has been detected in Saskatchewan for the first time in 15 years.

A snow goose near the town of Elrose, around 320 km northwest of Regina, was found to have the “highly pathogenic” H5 strain of avian influenza (HPAI) by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Veterinary pathologist Trent Bollinger performed the autopsy in Saskatoon.

Since then, he said his lab at the University of Saskatchewan has done tests on upwards of 50 birds believed to have died from HPAI. The number of unreported deaths is even higher, he said.

The flu is causing “fairly dramatic mortality” in a range of wild and domestic bird species, including snow geese, eagles, raptors and songbirds, according to Bollinger.

Labs across Canada are seeing deaths spill over into domestic turkey and chicken flocks.

“We’re going to see mortality in a wide range of species. I doubt it will cause a population collapse,” Bollinger said.

“The real implication will be for commercial poultry facilities.”

The Ministry of Agriculture is warning Saskatchewan poultry producers to follow biosecurity protocols given the threat of the disease.

The ministry outlined various protective measures for commercial flocks. This includes keeping them away from poultry flocks and their food and water supplies, limiting visitation and making sure to consult with a veterinarian if any birds do develop sickness.

Graham Snell, executive director for Chicken Farmers of Saskatchewan, said their farmers are taking extra measures, including sanitizing vehicles and wheel wells, changing foot attire when entering the grounds and testing frequently.

“During normal times, the biosecurity standards are very strict,” he said, adding consumers should not be concerned.

“The safety of food is so important, it always is. They’re just extra vigilant at this time, but there’s actually nothing to really worry about at all.”

Snell said the disease should not impact the supply chain.

HPAI has not been detected in commercial poultry or wild birds in Saskatchewan since 2007, according to ministry.

The H5 strain has been in Europe and Asia for a number of years, Bollinger said, but this is the first season it has shown up in North America.

The United States detected it before Canada. In late December, the Maritimes reported the country’s first case, according to Bollinger.

As birds migrate back north, he said the flu will continue to spread.

“Water fowl are sort of mixing vats for these avian influenza virus strains,” he said.

The ministry has received a large volume of calls from people reporting dead birds, but it has yet to determine the veracity of these reports, a spokesperson said.

The ministry also outlined that smaller flocks were under higher risk of contracting HPAI due to an increased chance of those flocks coming in contact with wild birds.

The release instructed small flock owners to confine their birds indoors as much as possible to minimize the potential for contact.

The risk of transmission of HPAI to humans is low according to the government, but nonetheless it is warning the public to not touch dead birds or other wildlife with their bare hands. Gloves, masks and eye protection should be used in the handling of dead birds.

With more and more migratory birds coming back to Saskatchewan everyday, the government asks that the public be vigilant and report any sick or dead birds to the Ministry of Environment.

Potential scenarios that should be reported could include:

  • Clusters of two or more dead waterfowl (e.g. ducks, geese) or other water birds.
  • Dead raptors or avian scavengers (e.g. ravens, crows, gulls).
  • Raptors, waterfowl or avian scavengers that appear to be sick.
  • Large groups of dead birds (e.g. more than 50) of any species.

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