Avian influenza in Canada

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus has been detected in wild birds in Canada, including migratory birds. During spring and fall migration, it is important for northern residents to be aware of this issue and to be on alert for birds with signs of HPAI.

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What is avian influenza?

Avian influenza is a viral infection that is highly contagious among birds and is found in domestic poultry and wild birds, including ducks, geese, swans, gulls, terns, shorebirds, cranes, and raptors.

Wild birds, especially waterfowl, naturally carry avian influenza viruses. They are not always affected by the disease but can transmit it to other wild birds and domestic birds. Avian influenza viruses are classified as low or highly pathogenic based on their ability to cause disease in domestic poultry. HPAI viruses spread rapidly and cause severe disease in poultry. On rare occasions, avian influenza viruses can cause disease in humans.

Signs that a bird may have HPAI include nervousness; tremors or lack of coordination; swelling around the head, neck and eyes; lack of energy or movement; coughing, gasping for air or sneezing; diarrhea or sudden death. Not all infected birds appear sick.

Multiple dead birds in one location is a sign that the virus may be present.

What is the risk to humans?

The risk of transmission of HPAI to humans from cases in wild birds is low.

As a precaution, basic measures are recommended for hunters and other bird handlers to reduce the risk of disease and prevent spread of the virus:

  • wear gloves,
  • wash hands with soap and warm water,
  • clean and disinfect equipment, and
  • wash or change clothing.

It is safe for people to eat fully cooked waterfowl meat and eggs.

What is the risk to other animals?

The risk of transmission of HPAI to other animals is low. However, carnivores such as dogs and foxes can become ill, likely from eating infected bird carcasses. It is good practice to prevent dogs from contacting obviously sick or dead wild birds.

What should you do if you find dead or sick birds?

If you encounter birds acting strangely or dead birds, you are encouraged to report sightings directly to the Conservation Officer in your community.

Members of the public should not handle wild birds found dead or live birds that are acting strangely. If contact with wild birds found dead is unavoidable, wear gloves or use a doubled plastic bag and avoid contact with the bird's body fluids and feces. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water or use hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.

What precautions should you take when hunting game birds?

It is considered safe to hunt, handle and eat healthy game birds.

However, exposure to avian influenza can occur when handling wild birds.

To protect your health and to prevent the spread of the avian influenza virus, it is recommended you:

  • Do not handle or eat sick birds or birds that have died from unknown causes.
  • Wear gloves (e.g., vinyl, latex, nitrile, rubber) when preparing harvested birds and work outdoors, when possible.
  • Avoid touching your face and do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling birds.
  • Wash hands with soap and warm water immediately after you have finished handling or cleaning harvested birds or use hand sanitizer/wipe (at least 60% alcohol).
  • After you are done cleaning, thoroughly clean and disinfect tools and work surfaces with soapy water, and then use a household disinfectant or bleach solution (25 ml or 5 tsp bleach to 2 L or 8 cups water).
  • Immediately remove and wash or change clothing and footwear that may be contaminated with blood, feces or respiratory secretions.

If you become ill after handling a bird, contact your local health centre as soon as possible and inform them that you have been in contact with wild birds.

What precautions should you take when harvesting eggs?

It is considered safe to handle bird eggs following precautions specified below.

HPAI virus can be found on the shell and potentially in the whites and yolk of eggs laid by infected birds.

Although there is no documented evidence of humans getting avian influenza from handling or consuming eggs, it is recommended that you:

  • Wear gloves (e.g., vinyl, latex, nitrile, rubber) when handling eggs, if possible.
  • Always wash your hands before and after handling eggs - use hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol) when you can't use soap and warm water.
  • Avoid touching your face and do not eat, drink or smoke when handling eggs.
  • Separate clean and dirty eggs during collection and avoid collecting cracked eggs and very dirty eggs covered with feces.
  • Dry clean the eggs, rubbing dirt and debris off with a clean and dry paper towel, cloth, or brush. Washing or soaking eggs with water can affect the eggshell and allow germs to enter the egg.
  • Always wash all equipment used with soap and water, and then disinfect using a bleach solution (25 ml or 5 tsp bleach to 2 L or 8 cups water).

If you become ill after handling wild bird eggs, contact your local health centre as soon as possible and inform them that you have been in contact with wild bird eggs.

How do you cook or prepare wild bird meat or harvested eggs?

It is considered safe to consume fully cooked game birds or eggs.

To reduce your risk of exposure to avian influenza and other pathogens, it is important to follow these recommendations:

  1. Cook game meat and eggs thoroughly. Freezing does not kill the virus!

    Eggs

    • Cook eggs to an internal temperature of 74°C (165°F).
    • Avoid consuming eggs raw or partially cooked (runny yolk).
    • Avoid using raw eggs in foods that will not be cooked, baked or heat-treated in other ways.

    Meat

    • Cook meat pieces and cuts to an internal temperature of 74°C (165°F).
    • Cook whole birds to an internal temperature of 82°C (180°F).
    • Ensure meat is fully cooked with no pink meat and until juices run clear.
  2. Follow general safe food handling practices:
    • Keep raw meat separate from other food products to avoid cross contamination.
    • Wash your hands before and after handling raw meat and eggs.
    • Eggs should be brushed off or dry cleaned with a paper towel and not washed with water.
    • Thoroughly clean contaminated tools and work surfaces with hot, soapy water and then use a household disinfectant or a solution of 25 ml bleach and 2 L water (5 tsp bleach to 8 cups water).

Dead birds found and collected by community members for avian influenza testing should be stored separately from other community freezer items (e.g., harvested wild meat and eggs, other country foods).

What precautions should you take when travelling between bird nesting areas?

Avian Influenza can spread between different bird colonies by transferring potentially contaminated material (bird droppings, dirt, fresh water) between nesting areas.

When travelling between separate bird communities (moving far distances between islands or on land):

  • Brush off organic material (dirt, bird droppings, plant matter) from clothing and rubber boots.
  • Change gloves and/or wash hands/use hand sanitizer in between bird nesting areas.
  • While in a bird nesting area, try to minimize contact with freshwater ponds or wet areas, if possible.
  • When preparing and having meals on islands, try to select a site farthest away from bird community activity.

References

  1. Government of Canada. Avian Influenza in Wild Birds
  2. Government of Canada. Avian Influenza Reference Issue Sheet for EPHOs and other health professionals. Developed by EPHD, ISC with contributions from ECCC, PHAC and CFIA. 2022.
  3. Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative. Inter-agency Wild Bird Avian Influenza Survey Update - A report of samples collected and tested as of May 16, 2022
  4. The Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza - Wild birds Dashboard Public Interface. Available at: National Avian Influenza - Wild Positives (arcgis.com)
  5. Government on Nunavut, Public Health Advisories of April 19, 2022 and May 30, 2022
  6. Nunatsiavut Government, Land and Natural Resources. Working Together to Monitor and Reduce Spread of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in Wild Birds. Public Notice of April 27, 2022
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