Experts cant explain three avian flu outbreaks in B.C.s Fraser Valley

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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VANCOUVER Three of four of the most recent avian flu outbreaks in Canada have broken out in British Columbias Fraser Valley but despite years of trying to figure it out, they still cant explain why the valley attracts the virus.

In the latest outbreak, 60,000 turkeys were culled on an Abbotsford, B.C., farm last week.

Tests so far indicate the virus has not spread to any other poultry producers within a three-kilometre quarantine zone.

That wasnt the case in the valleys first outbreak in 2004 when an H7-type flu transformed into a highly contagious strain.

Farm after farm was quarantined until finally about 15 million birds almost the entire valley poultry population was destroyed.

The second Fraser Valley outbreak in November 2005 saw two duck farms infected with the H5N2 strain of the virus.

In 2007, a highly pathogenic H7N3 strain was found in Saskatchewan on a farm that produced hatching eggs to produce broiler chickens.

Experts have difficulty explaining why the Fraser Valley has been hit so often but there are theories.

Were on the Pacific flyway so there are lots of birds passing through every year, says Ron Lewis, the chief veterinary officer for British Columbia.

And we know wild waterfowl carry a variety of different strains of avian influenza.

People can easily walk over the areas where wild waterfowl have been.

And we know avian influenza has some capability of aerosol transmission, he says.

Lewis and Sandra Stephens, veterinary program specialist with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, suspect the main culprits are the wild birds moving throughout North America and the world on migratory flyways.

Avian influenza virus is prolific and when wild waterfowl have it they shed tremendous numbers of viral particles.

All these birds when they get to their summer or wintering grounds they co-mingle, says Stephens.

And North American flyways are not completely isolated from others.

Although you tend to think of the North American flyways as being separate from Europe and Asia, in fact there is some crossover in the northern breeding grounds, she says.

The huge concentration of commercial poultry producers in the Fraser Valley is also a factor in the spread.

Any poultry producer faces being exposed to migratory birds.

But where we have more concerns are areas like the Fraser Valley or the Niagara Peninsula where there are large concentrations of poultry farms close together, says Stephens.

Calvin Breukelman of the B.C. Poultry Association estimates there are about 600 poultry producers in the Fraser Valley in an industry worth close to $1 billion.

Such concentration occurred for obvious economic reasons: close access to a large market.

In an ideal world we of course wouldnt have this concentration but its not ideal and we have to do whatever we can to reduce the impact of that concentration, says Lewis.

Perhaps the biggest worry facing producers and the general population is the likelihood of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus that killed hundreds of people in Asia, Africa and Europe occurring here.

Lewis suggests its highly unlikely.

In countries where H5N1 occurred there are very close living conditions between poultry and people, he says.

We dont have that kind of proximity to wild and commercial ducks co-habiting in many cases that is present in those countries, he says.

Moreover, Lewis says, the intense biosecurity measures introduced in Canada after the 2004 Fraser Valley outbreak are not practised in many of those countries.

We now have a mandatory biosecurity program in place for all of the commercially-regulated poultry industry, he says.

The industry has achieved a very high level of compliance with those biosecurity protocols, says Lewis, estimating the compliance rate at about 98 per cent of the industry.

Organizations: North American, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, B.C. Poultry Association

Geographic location: Fraser Valley, B.C.s Fraser Valley, Canada VANCOUVER British Columbias Fraser Valley Abbotsford Saskatchewan Europe Asia British Columbia North America Niagara Peninsula Africa

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