With at least 16 confirmed cases of avian influenza in flocks – both commercial and non-commercial – in B.C., the provincial health officer says there’s been “little spillover effect globally” in humans but it can happen.
Dr. Bonnie Henry provided an update on the recently announced avian flu outbreaks during an update with Health Minister Adrian Dix on the respiratory illness season and vaccine campaign Friday (Nov. 10).
“It is very concerning this time of the year when we’re starting to see human influenza viruses circulate as well.”
The province confirmed Wednesday there was 16 avian influenza cases since Oct. 20 in the province, with eight commercial poultry farms in the Fraser Valley and two small flocks in Merritt and Port McNeill.
READ MORE: 16 avian flu cases confirmed in B.C.
The province adds that its animal health centre has tested approximately 900 samples for the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain since the start of the outbreak this fall, with more than 39,000 tests since April 2022.
Henry encouraged people who work with poultry or live on a poultry farm to get their influenza vaccine. It’s a way to protect yourself, while also ensuring you’re not a potential source of infection to the flocks, she said.
Since the vaccine campaign kicked off on Oct. 10, about one million British Columbians have received their influenza vaccine.
“If we have somebody who gets infected with both a human and a bird virus that virus can re-assort, we call it, and create a new influenza virus that could be more infectious to humans. So that’s a risk that’s in the back of our mind all the time with these.”
However, she said the risk of infection is low for most people given the limited contact the general public has with infected birds.
Asked if this outbreak is particularly worse, Henry said the industry did see this strain of the virus, H5N1, spreading globally last year across the U.S. and Canada that caused devastation for a large number of farms.
The last outbreak in B.C. was on April 29, she added.
“We were all holding our breath and waiting to see what was going to happen in the migratory season in the fall.”
Wild fowl migrate two different times of the year: the spring and the fall, which is when they can bring viruses with them and spread to new areas.
Henry said she knows the industry has been working very hard on biosecurity to make sure the poultry they have is protected from exposure to wild birds.
But those farms can be easily infected, which she said is incredibly challenging for them and the families and workers.