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Avian influenza

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What is Avian influenza (AI) or “bird flu”?

Avian Influenza (AI) is a disease caused by a virus that primarily infects domestic poultry and wild birds such as geese, ducks, and shore birds. Each year, there is a “bird flu” season and some forms of the “bird flu” are worse than others. Wild birds, especially waterfowl, are a natural reservoir for mild strains of AI.

What is Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N1?

HPAI H5N1 is a strain of AI virus currently affecting domestic poultry and wild waterfowl. It causes high levels of mortality (death) in some birds, while other birds, such as some waterfowl and shorebirds, can be infected and not show any clinical signs. Its spread has been primarily attributed to the migration of infected waterfowl.

Have there been any cases of HPAI H5N1 virus in Ontario?

As of March 2022, HPAI H5N1 virus has been detected in Ontario in wild, commercial and small flock poultry (external link). This same strain has also been found in many other jurisdictions around the world, including in other Canadian provinces and American states.

Can people become infected with Avian influenza?

The exact mode of transmission from birds to people is not known, but most human cases of AI have been traced to unprotected contact (no gloves, protective wear, facemasks, respirators or eye protection) with infected poultry or their droppings.

The handling of dead birds is considered a lower risk activity and has not been implicated in transmission of HPAI H5N1 to date. High risk activities include:

  • caring for diseased birds;
  • dressing birds that died from the disease;
  • consuming duck’s blood or possibly undercooked poultry; and
  • handling birds involved in cockfighting.

Have there been any domestically-acquired human cases of HPAI H5N1 in Ontario?

No domestically-acquired human cases of HPAI H5N1 have ever been reported in Canada. According to the Ontario Ministry of Health, the HPAI H5N1 virus does not easily cross from birds to humans and the current strain has been listed as lower than normal concern for spread to people.

How can I protect myself and what precautions should I take?

While the risk of human infection with AI viruses remains low, individuals should avoid direct contact with wild birds and observe them only from a distance, if possible. Wild birds can be infected with bird flu viruses without appearing sick. If contact with wild birds is unavoidable, wear gloves or use a doubled plastic bag and avoid contact with blood, body fluids and feces. You should then wash your hands with soap and warm water.

Get your annual influenza vaccine. While the annual human influenza vaccine does not protect against AI, it will help prevent you from getting seasonal influenza, which could weaken your immune system or resistance to other infections.

I’ve recently handled an ill bird. Is there anything I should do?

If you have handled a sick wildlife bird or poultry, monitor for 14 days from exposure for human symptoms of AI, which can range from very mild to severe:

  • fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose
  • muscle or body aches, headache, tiredness
  • conjunctivitis (red eyes)
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Less common symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting or seizures.

It is important to tell your doctor if you have any of these signs and if you have been around birds in the past 10 days, and especially if you have been around sick or dead birds and did not wear any personal protective equipment.

Can I be tested for Avian influenza?

In Ontario, people who are symptomatic and have had exposure to an infected bird or premise can be tested. Testing can be arranged through your health care provider.

I work with birds. How can I protect myself?

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety has information on AI for workers (external link).

Is it safe to eat poultry or game meat?

The transmission of AI viruses to people from eating uncooked or undercooked eggs or poultry is unlikely. However, proper safe food handling practices such as hand washing and keeping poultry and egg products separate from other food products to avoid cross contamination should be followed as a general practice.

Thoroughly clean contaminated surfaces on tools and work surfaces with hot, soapy water and then disinfect the area using a household disinfectant.

Always wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before handling food, and after handling raw meat, poultry or eggs.

Follow these guidelines if you handle poultry or game bird meat:

  • Cook pieces and cuts of game meat to an internal temperature of 71ºC (160ºF).
  • Whole birds should be cooked to an internal temperature of 82°C (180°F).
  • Do not feed uncooked or undercooked poultry or game bird meat to cats or dogs.

How can I protect my backyard poultry?

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs has information for small flock owners on preventing the introduction and spread of disease. These recommendations can be found on the Ministry’s Biosecurity Recommendations for Small Flock Poultry Owners webpage (external link).

The Ontario Animal Health Network also has information on Avian influenza for backyard flock owners (external link).

Who do I call to report if my backyard poultry are sick or dying?

If you suspect that your birds could have AI, please call your veterinarian or the Canadian Food Inspection Agency at 226-217-8022, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (EST), or email cfia.ontsurveillanceanddiagnostics-survetdiagnostiques.acia@inspection.gc.ca.

Are there specific mental health resources available for farmers?

The Ontario Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) has a list of resources available to help farmers and their families on their Mental health resources for farmers webpage (external link).

What should I do if I find a dead wild bird(s) in my backyard or in a park?

Please call the Ontario Regional Centre of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative at 1-866-673-4781 to report the finding of sick or dead wild birds. Specimen handling instructions can be found on the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative website (external link).

Where can I get additional information?

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