June 16, 2006

Canada Finds Bird Flu Case, Plans Further Testing

By Louise Egan and Marcy Nicholson

OTTAWA/WINNIPEG -- Canada has detected a case of H5 avian flu in the eastern province of Prince Edward Island and plans further testing over the weekend to determine whether it is the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain, government officials announced on Friday.

A gosling in a small backyard poultry flock in the western end of the tiny province contracted the disease but there is a low risk of human illness from the outbreak, officials said.

The last Canadian outbreak occurred in November 2005 on the other side of the country, in British Columbia, and involved low-pathogenic H5N2 strain. In that case no birds actually showed signs of illness but 60,000 ducks and geese were culled nonetheless.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said there is no evidence that the latest bird flu case is the high-pathogen H5N1 strain that has spread to 48 countries so far since its resurgence in 2003.

If it is, it would be the first case in the Americas. The H5N1 strain has killed 129 people in nine countries since 2003, mostly in Asia.

"Just because the virus was there does not mean that's what killed the geese," said CFIA veterinarian Jim Clark.

"Ducks and geese are natural reservoirs for avian influenza viruses. The viruses exist quite nicely in their intestinal tract and cause absolutely no illness or death in the birds. That would be the situation in this case," he said.

A sample from the non-commercial flock of about 35 ducks, geese and chickens was brought to the Atlantic Veterinary College for testing after four goslings became sick on June 4, Clark said. The geese were not imported and there were no known links to Asia.

The CFIA has culled the entire backyard flock and is monitoring a 3 km (2 mile) zone around the property.

Prince Edward Island has only seven commercial chicken farms -- compared with over one thousand in top producer province Ontario -- and there are none within a 10 km (6 mile) radius of the affected farm, industry group Chicken Farmers of Canada said.

"We are alert but not alarmed, at this period in time," said Lisa Bishop-Spencer, a spokeswoman for the group. "We're going to wait for the results before we really react ... the fact that other birds appeared healthy is a very good sign in our eyes."

Not all H5 viruses are highly pathogenic and not all will cause severe disease in poultry.

Prince Edward Island's health officer, Dr. Lamont Sweet, told Reuters that the results of further bird flu tests were expected next week.

He downplayed any risk of transmission to humans but issued a warning nonetheless.

"People need to continue washing their hands carefully after handling poultry," Sweet said.

Canada, which has had numerous low pathogenic outbreaks, reported a case of H5N9 bird flu in 1966, which was highly pathogenic, and a case of high pathogenic H7N3 in 2004.