Nfld. & Labrador

Hundreds of birds die at St. John's exhibition farm in avian flu tragedy

A St. John's exhibition farm is under quarantine after being hit hard by a type of avian influenza that is deadly for birds, and has been known to harm humans.

Highly pathogenic avian flu identified in N.L. has been known to cause severe human illness and death

Farm owner Jim Lester contacted a local veterinarian after finding a higher than normal number of dead chickens on his farm. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

A St. John's exhibition farm is under quarantine after being hit hard by a type of avian influenza that is deadly to birds and has been known to harm humans.

According to a report filed with the the World Organization for Animal Health, a flu strain found on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula killed 360 birds on Lester's Farm Chalet. The 59 remaining birds on the farm were destroyed to prevent further spread of the virus.

The birds' owner says it's a tragedy for his farm, which doesn't raise birds for human consumption and also kept show birds such as peacocks and Silkie hens.

"Each one of those [birds] had personalities and we had them bred to be social. They were more than just livestock. So it was a true tragedy and it has affected us emotionally as well as financially," said Jim Lester. "A lot of them were rare breeds or specific types of breeds that we have grown for years."

Jim Lester at his farm in the west end of St. John's at 192 Pearltown Road. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

On Dec. 20, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed the presence of highly pathogenic avian influenza subtype H5N1 at the farm.

Their chickens were the first birds to show signs of the virus, said Lester.

"There was unusual mortality in the chickens and that was our first cause of concern," said Lester. The farm contacted provincial vets, who performed post-mortem examinations and notified the inspection agency. 

"We were fully co-operative because this is a big concern. CFIA identifies it as a high pathogen strain so that was even more concerning."

The presence of the virus was also confirmed in ducks and geese on the farm.

According to the CFIA, avian flu circulates naturally in wild birds, and the detection of highly pathogenic avian influenza in Europe indicates a higher risk of the disease in North American poultry this year.

In a statement to CBC News, Environment Climate Change Canada said it is aware of a case of highly pathogenic avian influenza in a great black-backed gull collected at Mundy Pond in Newfoundland on Nov. 26.

The statement also said samples have been collected from wild birds and are being analyzed.

This is a colourized transmission electron micrograph of avian influenza H5N1 viruses, seen in gold. (Cynthia Goldsmith, Jacqueline Katz, Sherif R. Zaki/CDC)

Lester said his birds sometimes do have contact with wild birds, which he believes were the source of the avian flu found on his farm. He said their ducks and geese were in an open pond on the farm where wild ducks occasionally land.

"So that's how we theorize that they became infected," he said.

Risk to humans

There is no evidence that the H5N1 avian flu has made any people in Newfoundland and Labrador sick, but it has been known to cause severe illness and even deaths in other parts of the world. More than 700 human infections have been reported to the World Health Organization from primarily 15 countries in Asia, Africa, the Pacific, Europe and the Middle East since November 2003, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Environment Climate Change Canada said it is aware of a case of highly pathogenic avian influenza in a great black-backed gull collected at Mundy Pond in Newfoundland on Nov. 26. (Twitter/@Seumas326)

A University of Montreal professor who studies viral infections in animals says it's important to prevent the virus from spreading in Newfoundland and beyond.

"Right now we have a pandemic with more than 40 countries that have reported cases of the highly pathogenic strain of influenza," said Carl A. Gagnon.

"We were quite lucky because we didn't have any cases in Canada but now we have to be careful. We are able to control it so we have to act quickly and put biosecurity measures in place to make sure it doesn't spread around the country."

If the virus does spread, said Gagnon, it could damage the country's poultry industry, but in a notice to industry operators, the CFIA notes that as the infected birds were found on an exhibition farm, it's considered a "non-poultry detection."

"As per the World Organisation for Animal Health guidance, Canada's 'free from avian influenza' status remains in place," says the notice.

"Trading partners should feel reassured that existing measures do not warrant the imposition of any additional restrictions. As such, trade impacts on Canadian industry as a result of this detection should be minimal."

St. John's residents have been asked not to feed or touch wild birds around the city, after the discovery of avian flu. (Mike Moore/CBC)

Gagnon advised small-scale backyard farmers in the St. John's area to put their birds in quarantine to avoid contact with wild birds.

"They have to make sure that no wild birds have access to their coops and barns and no members of the public have access to those buildings," said Gagnon.

Control zone established

The CFIA has placed the farm under quarantine and established a 10-kilometre control zone and enhanced biosecurity for farms within the area, aimed at limiting potential spread of the disease. Meanwhile, after Environment Canada confirmed the presence of avian flu in the St. John's area, including Bowring Park and Quidi Vidi Lake, the City of St. John's has asked the public to refrain from feeding, touching or handling wild birds, including ducks, pigeons and gulls.

Lester's Farm Chalet expects it will eventually bring birds back to its facility after a period of time yet to be determined by the CFIA, said Lester.

"After there is a fallow period with no hosts on site, feathered species, there will be no presence of the virus on site," said Lester. "So we are just sitting tight, and there is no danger of the virus transferring to other animals."

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