Lessons learned so far, with avian influenza expected to stick around

The highly-pathogenic avian influenza (AI) virus that has swept North America in 2022 will likely remain a threat in 2023, but there have been some lessons learned in the past seven months by producers, veterinarians, and poultry industry stakeholders when it comes to responding to the often-devastating disease.

As of October 17, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says over 3.1 million birds — mainly chickens, turkeys, and ducks — have died or had to be depopulated due to AI on farms across Canada in 2022. Over 1.3 million of those were located in Alberta.

Dr. Teryn Girard, poultry veterinarian with Prairie Livestock Veterinarians, has been involved in diagnosing and responding to many of the AI cases in Alberta. While there’s still much to be learned about the virus, including how it spreads, she says there’s been progress in understanding the actions that must follow a suspected case, including the mental support required for producers and others involved in this process.

As some of you know, this is an issue that I (Kelvin) have been following closely, as we raise chickens on our farm in southern Manitoba (pictured above). It’s from this unique position, wearing both my poultry producer and journalist hats, that I welcomed the opportunity to speak with Dr. Girard for Tuesday’s edition of RealAg Radio about the lessons that have been learned so far regarding the ongoing AI outbreak.


Here are some of the highlights of our conversation (edited for brevity, as they say):

KH: Where are we at right now when it comes to the avian influenza situation? Are things starting to quiet down again? 

Dr.  Teryn Girard: I wouldn’t say — it’s maybe just starting to quiet down in Alberta. In the last few weeks, we’ve had three small flocks. We’re at 52 cases total in 2022 for Alberta. Cases are still climbing in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, unfortunately. So it’s not quiet yet. But I think that we can see a correlation with migrating birds.

What do these cases look like? Are we still seeing high mortality?

The answer is the avian influenza virus this year has not read the textbook. It doesn’t always mean high mortality. In these most recent cases, we have had high mortality in both small flocks and commercials — turkeys, and we’ve had one or two layer farms recently. And so it has been high mortality, but there have been cases that don’t have high mortality. This virus presents differently in different species of birds and different ages of birds, so we’re constantly testing, trying to figure out when it is avian influenza and when it’s something else.

You mentioned turkeys. Are they more susceptible? Or what are some of the commonalities or trends that have been observed?

The trend is that the turkeys got hit really hard in the fall. It does look like they are more susceptible. They also have a lifestyle that may be a bit riskier for avian influenza — they need more ventilation, and they live longer than broiler chickens. So they are at a higher risk. The other trends that we’ve seen are that layers also have high mortality. We’ve seen two breeder cases with AI and they had high mortality, and then broilers can have high mortality or just high morbidity, which means disease. The producer knows that something isn’t right, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s going to be really high mortality.

What about the vectors? Is the virus moving through movement of manure or are we seeing aerosol or airborne movement as well?

We don’t have that information on that. We know that avian influenza management does benefit from increasing biosecurity. But as you would know, biosecurity in poultry barns is already quite high. As for the question about aerosolized. I think where I focus more on right now is dust and wind. And so if people are harvesting the fields by the barn inlets, that’s a risk. But we’ve only been dealing with this since April 2022. So not even a year, so that epidemiology or that investigation into how it’s gotten into the barn, we’re just not there yet.

As a vet, what does your role look like? What happens when there’s a suspected case and that phone call or text message comes in?

That’s where we have focused as a team — what do we do when we get that call? So typically, the call will be ‘hey, I think something’s up. I’m not sure what it is.’ But typically the producer already has a gut feeling that it is avian influenza. Our goal as the vet for the client is to get them a diagnosis as soon as possible. So our goal is less than 24 hours. Sometimes it’s longer than that. While we work to go get swabs of birds and get that to the lab, we are also communicating with the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) to let them know we have a suspect case and also letting the emergency management teams know there’s a suspect case. And sometimes the processors too, so that they can start thinking about different transportation routes and whether they’re going to be missing out on the kilos suffered from that. If the producers’ birds test positive, it’s almost like we’re on the sidelines and helping them alongside the emergency management team with paperwork, SOPs, any questions they have as they work with the CFIA, because ultimately the CFIA then takes charge. And there are a bunch of steps that the producer has to go through. And through that process, we’re just on the sidelines, trying to help the producer with what they require, but also on the mental health aspects of just being a shoulder to lean on providing mental health resources, whatever we can do.

So we’re still learning about the virus and how it’s moving, but is it fair to say that you’ve made more progress in terms of learning the process and steps to follow once it is discovered?

Yeah, definitely. I know our team specifically, we’ve been dealing with quite a few of the cases and we have it down to a tee about each role each person plays. And again, that’s where we figured we had to sit down as a team and say, ‘Okay, what are our goals and our goals are to get the producers a diagnosis as soon as possible because that, that time where they’re wondering if it’s a avian influenza, if there’s something else going on in the barn, that that’s one of the tougher points for the producer. And then, by this period, now, knowing what the CFIA requires for each step, helping the producer to get those requirements in order and knowing what’s to come in the future so that they can get through the process as quickly as possible.

Talking about the mental health side of things — speaking personally, there’s been some stress in the last half year, maybe more anxiousness about the possibility of getting it and we fortunately haven’t had it on our farm, but I can only imagine the level of stress that would happen when there is a positive case and some of the steps that have to happen after that.

This is kind of a Rubik’s cube of mental health, I guess is the way to put it. You have the mental health consequences of a producer with birds that have avian influenza, and then those birds will be depopulated. As you know, it’s a lifestyle for these producers. And it’s what they put all of their hard work, sweat and tears into. It’s way of living. And so all of a sudden when these birds are sick, and can’t be treated, and need to be depopulated, or humanely euthanized, that’s a massive hit mentally for that producer. But then I think you touched on another really important part that I tried to shed light on too is that the producers who haven’t had avian influenza, but have to walk into their barn every morning with that kind of trepidation or that nervousness like ‘is today the day?’ And so those producers we work with really closely to try and maintain open communication so that they feel that they have a safe foundation, where they have as much information as possible. And now we’re at this point in the disease too where producers that had avian influenza now have birds again. And that’s a new mental health challenge too, because now every time that they see mortality, they may get a flashback of what it was like having avian influenza. So the mountain of mental mental health consequences of this, I don’t think that they’re fully known yet.

You’ve only talked about the producer side of things, not to mention veterinarians that are involved in the in the picture and other industry partners and stakeholders as well.

Yeah, I had an eye opening experience last week where I presented on the mental health consequences of avian influenza. And the topic was ‘how can industry personnel help producers going through avian influenza.’ By the end, I had people coming up that worked for feed companies, and worked in a board position. It was two separate individuals at two separate times, and they were both very emotional about how they had been impacted by avian influenza. So it is much bigger than we realize. I try and protect our team and the mental health of our team as much as I can, but at the end of the day, this is a tragedy across all fronts. It’s hard for the birds, it’s hard for the producers, it’s hard for industry. It’s tough.

Looking ahead then, the outbreak is still ongoing here in Canada, in the U.S. and other parts of the world. What will it take for us to move on? Or is this part of our poultry industry going forward in terms of of always having this around? Is this something that we have to learn to live with?

I get asked that question every day. And I think it’s too early to answer with a direct answer, but I don’t think we’ve seen the end of it, is what I can say. I think that we’re going to have a few more blips through the fall here, and I think it’ll be back in the spring. And going back to what we had talked about, about the lessons learned and how we’ve, we’ve tightened up things and been able to make it a bit more of a streamlined process for the producer, I think that’s what we need to focus on now. While we deal with avian influenza, we do have the experience across Canada and North America right now to know what needs to be done. Where it felt like the end of the world in the spring, I don’t think it needs to feel like the end of the world now. I think we can manage it and move forward as an industry.

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