Avian flu is spreading rapidly again through poultry farms in British Columbia, with the virus discovered in half a dozen commercial flocks this week alone.
Birds at eight commercial poultry farms in the Fraser Valley and small flocks in both Merritt and Port McNeill have also recently tested positive for avian influenza, bringing the total number of confirmed outbreaks to 16 since late October, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
The affected farms in the Fraser Valley include operations in Chilliwack, Agassiz, Mission, Abbotsford and Langley.
The birds tested positive for the highly pathenogenic H5N1 strain, which was first detected in Canada in 2021 and has since led to the loss of millions of birds.
H5N1, which is spread through contact with an infected bird or its feces or nasal secretions, is highly contagious and deadly to birds.
In October, farmers were ordered by B.C.’s chief veterinarian to take extra precautions to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus, including restricting poultry events and keeping birds indoors.
Avian flu outbreaks are more likely to occur during fall, when migrating wild birds can pass it on to poultry farms or backyard flocks.
Mark Siemens, president of the B.C. Egg Producers Association, says farmers in the province are expecting the spread to be particularly bad this year.
“We are preparing ourselves for a long and difficult fall and winter,” said Siemens, who owns a chicken farm in Abbotsford.
He says experiencing an outbreak at this time of year is devastating for farmers, as it could mean the loss of their entire operation through the holiday season.
“It’s also animals that you care about and that you’ve really invested your time and energy into, so it is a very mentally and emotionally straining time for these producers,” he said.
Around 370,000 birds have already been euthanized since October due to avian flu, according to Amanda Brittain from the B.C. Poultry Association.
She says this is unlikely to affect chicken prices in grocery stores.
“We’re very lucky in Canada to have supply management for poultry and that keeps pricing somewhat stable,” said Brittain.
The outbreak during the fall and winter of 2022-23 season resulted in about three million birds being culled in B.C. The province’s worst season on record, in 2004, saw 17 million birds being destroyed.
B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture says farmers need to remain vigilant, and any sick or dead bird should be reported through the province’s wild bird surveillance hotline at 1-866-431-2473.