Avian flu: another farm in the London area affected by an epidemic

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Four more bird flu outbreaks were reported by the federal government on Thursday, including one at a Chatham-Kent farm.

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With the addition of the latest cases, a total of 10 outbreaks have been declared in Ontario since March 27.

The Chatham-Kent outbreak – detected on Wednesday but not announced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency until Thursday – involves a flock of poultry, but the agency did not specify which type of bird.

There are also two new cases in poultry flocks in Markham and one in Prince Edward County in a backyard flock on a hobby farm. In all cases, the food inspection agency has confirmed that tests show the presence of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of bird flu.

By Thursday, half a dozen properties in Ontario had been quarantined, including a farm in western Oxford County, where the movement of birds and eggs is restricted inside one of two control zones set up by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Ontario.

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Samples collected by the agency are sent to a lab in Winnipeg whenever an outbreak is confirmed. “So there is a delay” before a case is confirmed, said Ingrid DeVisser, a Bruce County turkey producer who leads the Feather Board Command Center, the emergency response team of the poultry industry.

DeVisser spoke to The Free Press before the last four outbreaks were made public.

Farmers and scientists can be warned by a high mortality situation, which occurs when a higher than usual number of birds in a flock die. DeVisser said poultry farmers she spoke to were “very, very concerned” about the situation. “We all take this very, very seriously,” she said.

Ontario is the largest poultry producer in the country, with much of the industry in southwestern Ontario. Ontario turkey producers market between 85 and 90 million kilograms of turkey each year, about 45% of the total raised in Canada. Ontario farmers also raise more than 200 million chickens a year.

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DeVisser said “a lot of mental energy is expended in addition to physical energy” to contain outbreaks.

The bird flu situation is “certainly adding to the stress” poultry producers are experiencing, in addition to rising fuel prices, inflation and the pandemic, she said.

COVID-19 was in some ways an empty race for how farmers need to operate now.

“We just monitor our biosecurity and think about every decision we make on our farms in terms of vectors, exposure to risk, and just being careful that we’re doing the right things and all the things that are necessary,” she said.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says bird flu is spreading through wild bird populations around the world and is of “significant national concern” as birds migrate to Canada.

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In seven of the cases detected so far, the virus has been found in poultry farms. The rest have been found in non-poultry flocks, called backyard flocks, which are usually found on hobby farms.

It’s unclear how many birds have been destroyed so far, but DeVisser said it was “devastating” for farmers when their flocks had to be killed.

At DeVisser’s farm, south of Chesley, she and her family have about 16,000 turkeys. They ship year-round, which means they raise around 700,000 kilograms of turkeys per year.

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs says bird flu does not pose a threat to food safety when properly handled and cooked.

It also indicates that avian influenza is not a significant public health problem for healthy people who are not in regular contact with infected birds.

In 2015, federal and provincial authorities spent months containing and ultimately eradicating a strain of flu capable of killing entire flocks of birds within days. This outbreak was contained on three farms in Oxford County and around 80,000 birds, mostly turkeys, were wiped out.

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