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Widespread Avian Influenza Outbreak

An outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), an H5N1 strain, is occurring in wild and domestic birds across Canada and USA, including Alberta.

In association with spring migrating waterfowl, we are receiving reports of small-scale local mortality in snow geese and Canada geese, as well as sick or dead individual raptors and waterfowl of various species, over a broad area of southern and central Alberta, reaching now into the north. Presumptive HPAI has been detected in waterfowl and scavenging birds.

For the most part we do not need carcasses for testing.  The virus is present across much of Alberta and further testing does not add new information. Dead waterfowl or raptors (hawks, owls, falcons), corvids (raven, magpie, crow) or gulls can be reported toll-free at 310-0000.

If you have had contact with possible HPAI in wild birds, do not visit or contact any poultry until you and any equipment or vehicle have been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.


 Key Points for County Residents

  • The primary risk is to commercial and free-range poultry (chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese)

  • The current HPAI in wild birds is not known to infect people (there are no reported cases in Canada); however, basic precautions should be used when handling dead birds (gloves, double bag carcasses)

  • General information is available on the Government of Alberta website


Frequently Asked Questions

What is avian influenza?

Avian influenza viruses are common infections in wild birds, primarily waterfowl. They usually do not cause disease in wild species but spread occasionally to domestic birds (ducks, chickens, turkeys) in which they can develop into strains that cause significant mortality in domestic species. Rarely, some strains can be passed from domestic poultry to humans. In addition, swine (pigs) can be infected with some strains of avian influenza viruses. Avian influenza viruses are not the same as the human influenzas (common "flu" viruses) that circulate every year in people.

How are influenza viruses named?

All viruses contain genetic material wrapped in a protein coat. Influenza viruses are separated into types based on two of the proteins in this coat: hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). Strains of influenza viruses are named according to the type of H and N proteins that they contain as well as where they occur. For example, the strain of greatest current concern around the world is known as Eurasian H5N1. In addition, the mortality that strains cause in chickens is an indication of "high" or "low" pathogenicity (often shortened to high path or low path). Eurasian H5N1 is highly pathogenic to poultry. However, there are other strains of H5N1 that are not high path.

What is going on in Eurasia with respect to avian influenza?

Eurasian high path H5N1 avian influenza was first described in Hong Kong in 1996. It then spread in poultry and domestic waterfowl populations throughout Southeast Asia. In 2005, the virus spread to wild, migratory waterfowl, leading to outbreaks in waterfowl in China and Mongolia. The virus is known to occur in several other countries in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and Africa. The strain is thought to spread via the legal and illegal international trade in domestic birds and bird-related products, and to a lesser extent by migratory waterfowl. Millions of domestic birds were culled in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. A limited number of people also contracted Eurasian H5N1, some of whom died. It is important to note this strain does not spread efficiently from human to human and to date no one has been infected directly from a wild bird.

What do we know about avian influenza in North America?

Avian influenza viruses have been monitored in North America for over 40 years, including surveillance sites in Alberta. These studies show that:

  • low pathogenic strains are common in North American waterfowl
  • high pathogenic strains were isolated from wild birds in North America in 2014, 2015, and 2022
  • the subtypes that evolve to high path strains (H5 and H7 subtypes) are very rare, particularly in birds that migrate through Alberta
  • the viruses are more frequent in juvenile birds than adults and frequency differs among species
  • virus frequency is variable from year-to-year and even month to month

How did the high pathogenic H5N1 virus come to North America from Eurasia?

It is likely that mixing of Eurasian and North American waterfowl in arctic breeding areas was the source of high pathogenic Eurasian strains in North America. This suggests there was limited sharing of influenza virus but once introduced, the new strains appear to have spread rapidly across the US and are likely to occur in Canada. Further mixing of the Eurasian strains with resident North American strains may have given rise to new high path North American strains, or they may be spillover from infected poultry. Regardless of the origin, both the United States and Canadian governments maintain active monitoring programs to look for all high pathogenic strains of avian influenza in wild or domestic birds.

What do I do if I find a dead wild bird?

Most bird species are not suitable for avian influenza surveillance (for example all songbirds, woodpeckers, and blackbirds). Effective surveillance should focus on the species most likely to be affected, and even then it is not necessary to test all individuals of these species. Alberta's ongoing surveillance of wild birds primarily uses groups of dead waterfowl (particularly ducks, geese, and swans), gulls, and raptors (hawks, owls, eagles). Call toll-free 310-0000 to report dead waterfowl or raptors.

As a general guideline, members of the public should avoid handling live or dead wild birds. If handling can't be avoided, wear disposable gloves, place a plastic bag over your hand before picking up the dead bird, or shuffle the dead bird into a box or container without touching it (for example, use a stick to move the bird). Wash your hands with soap and water, and disinfect using alcohol, diluted bleach, or commercial disinfectants any surface that has come in contact with dead birds.

Is it still safe to hunt waterfowl?

Healthy flying waterfowl are unlikely to be infected with avian influenzas that pose any risk to hunters. To date, no person has been infected with avian influenza directly from wild birds. Basic hygiene including washing hands with soap and water, wearing latex gloves, and disinfecting work surfaces after processing wild birds are added precautions that further limit any potential risk. A facemask and eye protection also can be used to reduce any potential risk. Of course, normal hunting and gun safety precautions should be followed at all times.

What is happening now that highly pathogenic strains of avian influenza were found in wild birds in Alberta?

All H5 and H7 subtypes of avian influenza must be reported to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. If subsequent tests identify high path strains, the public as well as provincial, territorial, and federal agriculture, health and wildlife agencies would be notified. Visit the web pages provided herein to find out what follow-up actions are underway by Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Alberta Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Economic Development, and Alberta Health. In conjunction with Alberta Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Economic Development, the Fish and Wildlife Division of Alberta Environment and Parks continually monitors mortality in wild waterfowl, particularly the species and in the geographic area in which high path strains are anticipated.

If highly pathogenic strains of avian influenza were found in wild birds in Alberta, would the government cull wild birds?

No. Culling of wild birds is inefficient and ineffective in reducing the health risks to poultry or any secondary health risks to humans.

How does the avian influenza virus commonly found in wild birds relate to pandemic influenza?

Pandemic strains of avian influenza are so named because they readily spread among humans and often cause fatal infections. Pandemic strains are extremely rare and currently none exist anywhere in the world. The World Health Organization and many other health agencies are concerned that current strains of avian influenza could give rise to a human pandemic strain that passes freely from person to person and thus could pose serious risk to human populations. Note that the source of pandemic strains occurs within people and not within wild birds.


 

More Information

For information on wildlife diseases in Alberta, including avian influenza:

For information on avian influenza from a poultry perspective, visit:

Results of Canada's ongoing surveillance survey for avian influenza in wild birds:

For information on avian influenza federal poultry perspective, visit:

For information on human influenzas, visit:


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