The avian virus has been found in 17 poultry operations across Alberta — 13 farms and four backyard pens. (Photo from Alberta Chicken Producers)

The avian virus has been found in 17 poultry operations across Alberta — 13 farms and four backyard pens. (Photo from Alberta Chicken Producers)

Avian virus outbreaks take a heavy mental toll on many central Alberta farmers

Red Deer veterinarian says it’s hard to see this happen to multi-generational farms

Central Alberta farmers dealing with an unprecedented avian influenza outbreak need emotional support as much as anything else, says a Red Deer-based veterinarian.

“Producers have a lot of anxiety about this,” said Teryn Girard, of Prairie Livestock Veterinarians, who is a member of the Alberta poultry Emergency Management Team.

“It’s scary going out into your barn every day not knowing if you will find (H5N1 influenza).”

Before this spring, Alberta has never had an outbreak of avian influenza. But since April 6, avian flu has been detected in 17 poultry flocks in Alberta, with clusters near Olds, Ponoka, Camrose and Halkirk.


Avian flu cases detected in six central Alberta counties

Most of these were found in commercial operations, but four cases were found in backyard flocks.

Girard has been called to check on birds that appear sick. “If a chicken has been sitting quietly instead of moving around,” it could be a sign of infection, she said — as could signs of diarrhea, a drop in egg-laying or production of soft-shelled eggs. “There will be a sudden rise in mortality.”

Girard knows many of the affected central Alberta producers: “Some of them were my clients. I know (these farmers) walk their barns every day and take pride in producing high quality food,” which has meant maintaining flock health and cleanliness, she said.

”To have something like this happen has taken a toll on their mental health. It’s had a big impact.”

All chickens and turkeys at the quarantined farms will have to be humanely destroyed.

Impacted farmers will get government compensation for their lost birds at market rates — “but for them it’s not about the money,” said Girard. “These are multi-generational family farms and it’s hard see this happening to their livelihood.”

David Hyink, a Lacombe area farmer, who is chair of the Alberta Chicken Producers, said the avian flu has never been seen in this province before, so he’s worried for the health of his own chickens.

Domestic birds have no resistance to the virus that kills most birds it infects. There’s no treatment. Experts believe the latest strain is extra virulent. In the past, migrating birds who have brought the virus into Canada have tended to show no symptoms. But this spring, some wild birds are also dying from it, said Hyink.

“Its a very stressful for these (affected) farmers. We are respecting their privacy because it is such a challenging time.”

Although no virus has been detected at Hyink’s farm, he and other poultry producers are taking extra precautions — such as spraying down and sanitizing vehicle tires to prevent any virus from being tracked onto the farm. They also change footwear and clothing before entering their barns. Visits to poultry farms are being discouraged to limit the potential spread.

Every day, Hyink said he checks on his 135,000 birds to make sure there isn’t a rising mortality rate. “We are concerned and very vigilant, taking this very seriously.”

Ontario, Quebec, B.C. Manitoba and Saskatchewan have also had some avian flu outbreaks.

The Canadian Food Inspections Agency has stated there’s no evidence that poultry meat or eggs could transmit the virus to humans. In any case, poultry products from the locations under investigation are not permitted to enter the food chain.

Hyink said, “It’s really important for us that consumers know Health Canada has assured us this is a flock health issue, not a matter of food safety.” He noted that producers from across Canada are sending their poultry to Alberta to ensure there’s no shortage of chicken or eggs at the supermarket.


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