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The Real Story on Avian Influenza

Fraser Valley Avian Influenza Epidemic: 
A study of epic blunders.

David Hancock
Hancock Wildlife Research Center
Fraser Valley Resident and Biologist
David@hancockwildlife.org
(604) 538-1114

Fraser Valley Avian Influenza Epidemic: A study of epic blunders.
From beginning to end this is a classic problem of misplaced power and politics and based on:

  • Wrong science,

  • Wrong people being blamed,

  • Wrong people and birds suffering,

  • Wrong people profiteering,

  • Wrong solution being imposed

The real story of the Avian Influenza outbreak in the Fraser Valley is told in the Canadian Food Inspection Agencies (CFIA) own Public Announcements. They clearly define their belief in the originating and continuing cause of the Influenza and by logical scientific conclusion state the solution ---- BUT they are following a politically different route a route that pays-off and rewards the wrong people; a route that puts hardship and suffering on the wrong people and kills the wrong birds.

This whole Avian Influenza outbreak is a classic example of government bungling followed by further provincial - federal government jurisdictional disputes and power struggles. The simple and proper preventative measures instigated elsewhere in North America have not been followed here. The taxpayers and the wildlife and bird fanciers of this area are being called upon to shoulder the lack of responsibility that should have been demanded by the Provincial Department of Agriculture and the poultry industry. On top of this a number of commercial poultry farms, government agency employees and clear-up companies are making big bucks off the general public's back and suffering.. The taxpayer foots the bill for all the inadequacies and bad science.

Lets look at the details.

CFIA data sheet states: (Canadian Food Inspection Agency: Department of Agriculture)

How is the disease transmitted to birds? Wild birds, especially waterfowl, are natural reservoirs for the influenza viruses yet show no clinical signs and can be responsible for the primary introduction of infection into domestic poultry. The virus can also spread to birds through contact with infected poultry and poultry product, and through manure and litter containing high concentrations of the virus, for example through contaminated clothing and footwear, vehicles and equipment, and feed and water.

And unbelievably from the same CFIA release:

What can livestock producers do to prevent infections on their farms? Wild bird populations are the natural reservoir for the influenza viruses. Therefore, it is essential for commercial poultry producers to maintain strict bio-security practices.

So the Federal Government veterinarians admit they know both the problem and the solution. So why has this outbreak been so severe and the proposed solution so draconian? And more importantly, why was it not prevented? And particularly, why aren't their cleanup actions following their own advice?

One of the basic problems here is simple greed. If a farmers can get away without the cost of proper biosecurity why shouldn't they? If the farmers can cause sufficient alarm to the public and shift the problem to others why shouldn't they? No one, and this means the officials at the Provincial Department of Agriculture, has initiated or enforced the same biosecurity controls that most other places in North America demand.

So the government clearly knows the problem and the solution and this is not surprising as this same scenario of disease dissemination among the poultry producers is worldwide. Repeated outbreaks occur throughout North America and the rest of the world frequently. The poultry industry has had to incorporate very strict biosecurity control measures everywhere but in British Columbia! These biosecurity controls are the responsibility of the Province, not the Federal government that has now been brought in to clean up a BC mess that has taken on international health implications. Fortunately, the health implications this time are only for confined chickens and the export of them to the US!

So what is the Department of Agriculture proposing:

CFIA: Avian Influenza: Depopulation of all birds in British Columbia's Fraser Valley 19 million birds to be depopulated exterminated

According to Govt. of Canada : CFIA:

Most Avian Influenzas are of low pathogenicity and typically cause little or no clinical signs in infected wild or captive birds and no problems for people. But low pathogenic forms, in the highly contagious environment of confined brooder and breeding facilities can mutate and become more pathogenic.


Notes:

Our strain in BC:  H7N3 Low pathogenic
Texas H5N2 Highly Pathogenic
NJ/DE H7N2  Highly Pathogenic
PE h2N2 Highly Pathogenic
  • When will Canada regain its status of being "FREE"?
     - 6 months after the slaughter of the last affected animal.

  • Stamping-out practices include the humane destruction of all infected or exposed animals; surveillance and tracing of potentially infected or exposed animals; strict quarantine and animal movement controls; strict decontamination of infected premises; and zpmomg to defome infected and disease-free areas.

  • ON April 6, 2004, Canada removed the import restrictions on Texas poultry imports as the Texas outbreak had been completely eradicated AND without killing any private avicultural or wild birds.

  • Canada exported: In 2002 , Canada exported 119 million kg of chicken meat to numerous countries.

  • "On April 5, 2004, the Honourable Bob Speller, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and Minister responsible for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced the depopulation of all commercial poultry flocks and other backyard birds in the Control Area established March 11 in British Columbia's Fraser Valley in an effort to eradicate avian influenza. The decision is based on the recommendation of the CFIA in consultation with the Province of British Columbia and the poultry industry."

On Saturday April 24 I attended the open meeting / information session of CFIA at Abbotsford. Attendance was reported at 86 non-government individuals - mostly bird keepers. A further 35 - 45 persons represented the provincial and federal Department of Agricultures to answer questions. Most were CFIA personnel (they report about 150 working out of the BC office) imported from Quebec, Ontario and the prairie provinces at great cost of overtime and living expenses. Each of the dozen people I spoke with reported they were having a great time out west. I wish they would go home.

I spoke with many of the CFIA veterinarians and safety workers: None seem to have ANY meaningful grasp of the impact or implication of wild birds on this crisis. None seemed to realize that we have more than a million waterfowl and several thousand bald eagles working through the Fraser Valley, that these birds have been feeding daily in and on the poultry farmers discarded litter. There was universally an acknowledgment that wild birds probably initially transported the wild virus to this area. But none of the government personnel considered that the wild birds could be meaningful in the dissemination of the mutated disease from the contaminated farmers fields back to other poultry farms. This is both alarming and telling! W hen I then related this conclusion back to them and asked why then, would they worry about killing all the backyard flocks of wild ducks geese and swans or avicultural birds, which are not in contact with the poultry industry, they simply said that ... that was their mandate Totally illogical.

  • Update: 0940 Wednesday April 28, 2004: Dr Ron Lewis, the Chief Veterinarian for the Province of BC states that there is still no BC record of a wild bird species getting sick or transmitting the disease.

The reasoning got worse as I got further up the chain of government command. Dr. George Luterbach, the Director of Veterinarian Services CFIA Western Division. Calgary (he is in charge of the extermination program) was a prime example of government double talk.

I spent about 15 minutes asking and talking about the waterfowl and eagle situation in the Valley. Since he had only casual knowledge on the existence of a few ducks, I explained that as a wildlife biologist I had been specifically studying the Fraser Valley birds. He quickly made the point that not only did they not plan to kill wild waterfowl but that he had no authority to do so.

Then the double-talk started. First, he acknowledged that wild birds could be and likely were the initial transporter of the non-lethal avian influenza into the area. He then confirmed that the lethal form of the virus that had developed in the commercial barns was not known to be transported by wild birds. Now that is telling! and certainly not the logical leading to his killing program.

If the wild birds are not likely to transmit the virulent strain and no wild birds are to be killed, then obviously there is no worry about the wild birds spreading the disease to backyard poultry or avicultural / pet flocks. So why kill all the avicultural / pet birds? There of course is no evidence that any private captive wild collection of birds have the disease. These pet birds are therefore not getting the disease directly from the polluted poultry barns or vice versa! In fact the avicultural birds generally, like the wild birds, do not get the avian flu.

I asked Dr. Luterbach: Why incur those millions of dollars of expenses in eradicating these private birds if they are not the vector? Why inflict this incredible cost and hardship on pet flocks? He responded: We need to eliminate the perception (his word) that we have not done everything possible? Absurd! This is not a science based logical eradication. It is largely the federal government acting indiscriminately and for political terms. They are undertaking a massive kill of pet and avicultural birds for no scientific reason.

The government killing procedure is even more revealing. If they decide to kill a backyard flock of rare or pet birds because they are within the killing zone (the Fraser Valley) they will not test them before killing them but they may test them afterwards. That is even more bizarre! First, they say that wild birds flying around the neighborhood between and over commercial poultry farms offer no threat, yet the same species of swans, geese or ducks in someone's backyard pond is somehow a threat. How do 500 swans, geese and ducks flying between a city park and the poultry farmers contaminated fields offer less threat to commercial poultry than 10 captive geese confined on the backyard pond. They obviously don't! However, the government killers have authority to kill the captive birds but don't have the authority to kill the wild birds. Or perhaps at the moment, they don't want to risk the bad publicity!

  • Neither wild nor private backyard flocks are a threat to the poultry industry but authority and power seeking takes president.. Captive birds can and are being needlessly killed. There is no scientific justification whatsoever.

Finally, on questioning Dr. Luterbach on how killing of all captive flocks of waterfowl, avicultural birds and backyard poultry flocks could benefit the poultry industry he ended up stating that in spite of the possible re-distribution of any disease by wild waterfowl, gulls, pigeons, starlings or eagles, that the issue boiled down to getting the commercial industry working and exporting chicken products as soon as possible.

He emphasized that the... proposed total kill of captive birds would be perceived as the correct management procedure Science and evidence be dammed!

I have just consulted a medical doctor about Dr. Luterbach's sanity. Just as Military Generals or Sergeants can't order people killed indiscriminately or without due legitimate cause, it is possible that Dr. Luterbach's extermination policy of thousands of healthy birds, in conditions he and his department personally considers safe and non-diseased, could be grounds for an insanity commitment. Perhaps criminal! Are there doctors or lawyers out there that would address this?

It is totally a bizarre situation when a government body, defines the situation as perfectly safe yet, for presenting an expedient perception of political action undertakes the killing of thousands of private birds for nothing. Our Federal Minister of Agriculture, the Honourable Bob Speller, and his servants are not serving us well or at all.

More Optimistic BC Option?

My next conversation had a glimmer of hope: it was with our BC Minister of Agriculture, the Honourable, John van Dongen. The provincial government does have jurisdiction on how our provincial businesses function and what biosecurity regulations the poultry industry operates under. It is only when the situation gets out of hand and preventative measures fail that the federal government steps in and claims jurisdiction on health and disease issues. It is up to the provinces to control the conditions that prevent the disease the biosecurity at the poultry farms.

I spoke with him for 12 - 14 minutes: he was very attentive but seemed very naive about the huge numbers of wild waterfowl and bald eagles foraging the poultry farmers litter covered fields. My fears were initially raised when I first asked him what regulations his Department of Agriculture had in place to insure biosecurity in the poultry industry. His answer was frightening: The poultry industry is self policing Self policing indeed! and we have before us the results. Next time will we be dealing with an avian influenza that is also lethal to humans?

I then went on to describe my studies of the Fraser Valley bald eagles. Watching the sequence of birds responding to the regular dumping of poultry farm litter onto the fields was enlightening. He began to pay increasing attention as the flocks progressed from a few hundred starlings landing immediately behind the tractor and how during an afternoon of observation this flock might make 50 trips between polluted farm fields and the nearby farm buildings where they lined the power lines and did their droppings around the farm buildings to the few dozens of crows, the flocks of pigeons and few hundred gulls that followed them. When I got to the dozens to hundreds of bald eagles that then dived in to squabble over the dead chicken carcasses and that the entire fields could be populated by wild birds before the tractor had left, he was starting to take on a serious heir. When I then described the thousands of swans, geese and ducks that then arrived into these same fields and then passed up and down the Valley to the nearby lakes or all the way to Boundary and Semiahmoo Bays to rest securely on the sea for the night, it was as though a light came on! I was telling him something that he had seen daily but never quite brought into perspective. The poultry farmers habits were the source of the contamination and recontamination that could spread up and down the Valley with 10,000 daily unpaid helpers. Hopefully he was going to have the courage to change this.

We discussed the obvious conclusion that even with all these wild birds foraging in the polluted fields, that this specific Avian Influenza had not infected a single private breeder. That with all this wild bird traffic no private breeders had contacted the disease. This Avian Influenza outbreak was obviously confined to the commercial breeders and I asked him to stop the needless killing of the home flocks of pet and avicultural birds. This killing was needless and served no purpose. He obviously was needing to talk to others but I was astounded to hear his astute departing summary:

"Mr. Hancock, You would be happy with:
1) Effective constraints on litter distribution and biosecurity on the poultry industry and
2) Non-eradication of backyard and avicultural flocks that are not the cause of the problem."

Indeed I would. And nothing less.

He hit the nail on the head. With some government teeth to replace industry self- discipline or the lack thereof this might be a good start. Perhaps the continents largest flyway of waterfowl and eagles might just be spared a real serious disaster if Mr. van Dongen does his job. Perhaps thousands of his constituents will get to keep their treasured pet swans, ducks, chickens, pheasants or emus, and the more thousands of people who pay out or earn money from their feeding and housing will appreciate their jobs.

Later, I learned that Mr. van Dongen lived in the Valley right next door to the first poultry farm that became infected!!! Ouch! Was he naive, or just cagey? Was he so astute because he know the problem and the solution but wanted it quickly side-tracked? Was he a lackey for his poultry farmer constituents or could and would he take the responsible position and activate a very needed program? Time will tell. I think he might make it. His Victoria office phone number is 250 387-1023.

The current issue is the present policy of total needless extermination of aviculturally rare and pet birds. Here, as indicated above, the extermination policy has no potential benefit to the poultry farmer. It is a left-over policy of another era when our understanding of disease transmission was less known, when doing something, even something so draconian as killing all birds in an area of a thousand square miles, seemed to be the ONLY something that could be done. Now we know from the governments own words that the dissemination of the mutated disease is not through wild birds but from farm to farm by the poultry workers, the feed delivery vans, the killing and cleanup crews and the government inspectors. Lets get both the blame and biosecurities right and there will be no need to kill all birds in the Valley.

This will save the taxpayers millions of dollars and our community untold heartache. While there may be a handful of commercial breeders at fault (while there are some 29 affected farms I am told that one farmer owns 17 different flocks), there are many thousands of persons with backyard flocks of chickens, pens and ponds with a few pheasants and swans and geese and hundreds more with very rare (and often very expensive birds) and endangered species whose blood lines once lost will never be retrieved again. Commercial poultry farmers may have big bucks, but the thousands of conservationists, pet keepers, backyard farmers and people who do not like cruel injustices, have one hell of a lot more votes. The government needs to halt the mass extermination and focus on the contaminated farms and the biosecurity control at these farms. This disaster is a product of poor farm management and its solution is readily rooted at these farms.

The Honourable Bob Speller, Federal Minister of Agriculture, his Western Veterinarian Director, Dr. Peter Luterbach and the Honourable John van Dongen, BC Minister of Agriculture 250 387-1023. this is your time to apply common sense, modern science, sound broad-based economics and compassion the public demands it.

David Hancock
Hancock Wildlife Research Center
Fraser Valley Resident and Biologist
David@hancockwildlife.org
(604) 538-1114

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