Avian Influenza low risk to humans but must be taken seriously

By Bobbi Ann Brady, MPP

On April 19, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), H5N1 was discovered in a commercial poultry premises in Norfolk County.  Since that day, I have been in touch with both federal and provincial government experts to get the facts.

First off, I’ll start by stating it’s very rare that humans are infected with HPAI (H5N1) and, in the unlikely case it happens, symptoms are often limited to conjunctivitis or mild respiratory disease. And in terms of diet, Ontario poultry and eggs and poultry products are safe to eat.

Avian influenza is a highly pathogenic (causing or capable of causing disease) avian influenza, which naturally occurs in wild birds and is spread through migratory birds. HPAI is capable of infecting multiple species of domestic, wild and pet birds. The virus has also been periodically detected in mammals such as raccoons, striped skunks, red foxes, cats, and dogs. HPAI is spread by direct contact with live diseased poultry or surfaces and objects contaminated by their feces. 

You’ve heard this many times before, but I’ll be the one to say it again: a little prevention goes a long way.  To circumvent the risk of transmission of HPAI, people should avoid contact with wild birds and refrain from feeding or touching wild birds.   Pet owners (a.k.a. pet lovers like me) should not feed pets any raw meat from game birds or poultry.  A good move during this time is to keep cats indoors and dogs on a leash to help protect them by blocking access to potentially infected wild birds or their carcasses.

No need to remind anyone, but farming is Haldimand-Norfolk’s bread and butter, so biosecurity is a must.  And I say that knowing the vast majority of our farmers are already expert practitioners thereof.

In my recent discussions with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), they’ve asked me to reiterate that biosecurity remains the best tool for producers to protect flocks from avian influenza.

Specifically, as they put it, poultry owners are urged to take an active role in protecting their flocks by implementing strict biosecurity procedures on their properties, and immediately reporting any signs of illness to their veterinarians.

Signs of avian influenza can differ and may include a drop in water and feed consumption, decreased egg production, soft-shelled eggs, coughing and sneezing, diarrhea, bruising of the limbs, listlessness or a sudden increase in mortality rate.

OMAFRA and The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) are closely monitoring the situation.

The CFIA’s outbreak response includes surveillance of commercial poultry premises for early identification of HPAI spread and tracing of potentially infected or exposed poultry. In areas where HPAI has been detected, the CFIA establishes a drop off centre where commercial poultry producers submit required samples to CFIA. 

OMAFRA has comprehensive plans in place and is working with industry and government partners to provide information to producers to help address their financial, family support and animal care needs.

Again, as long as we take the sensible precautions I mentioned above, HPAI (H5N1) is rarely a threat to humans.  I know we in Haldimand-Norfolk will do what is required to get past this challenge. 

Bobbi Ann Brady is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk