Here’s what you need to know about bird flu in Quebec

Although officials say the risk to the general public remains low, some fear the virus could become a much greater threat.

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As bird flu spreads across the United States, infecting poultry flocks and now dairy cattle herds, Canadian authorities say they are closely monitoring the situation.

Even though Quebec has not yet recorded any cases in cattle, more than 50 chicken farms have already been affected by outbreaks.

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And while health officials say the risk to the general public remains low, some fear the virus could become a much bigger threat.

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Here is a brief overview of the situation.

When did the bird flu epidemic start?

So-called highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), or H5N1 avian influenza, was first detected in waterfowl in China in 1996.

Since then, outbreaks have occurred over the years, but the one making headlines began in late 2021 when a new H5N1 virus was detected in wild birds across North America.

Although found primarily in wild birds and poultry farms, the disease also spreads to mammals, including foxes, raccoons, cats, dogs, and other animals that may scavenge the carcasses of infected birds.

An unprecedented outbreak in dairy herds has also spread to nine US states.

The virus can infect humans, although it remains rare. According to health authorities, those most at risk are people in close contact with infected birds or those who work on poultry farms or in live bird markets.

Symptoms in humans can range from mild to life-threatening and often begin with a cough, shortness of breath and fever.

What is the current situation in Quebec?

Avian flu has been spreading throughout Quebec among wild birds since April 2022.

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Although the virus has not yet infected livestock in the province, it has already had disastrous consequences. To date, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has recorded 1.4 million birds affected by exposure to the disease on 54 poultry farms in the province.

Last week, Canada tightened its cattle import requirements in response to the spread of the virus among dairy cows south of the border.

It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to prevent the situation from recurring in Quebec.

“The emergence of HPAI in dairy cattle in the United States is an evolving health situation and it is difficult to accurately assess the risk of introduction into farms in Quebec and Canada,” said a spokesperson. word of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food of Quebec (MAPAQ). ) said in an email response.

“However, the risk is present and MAPAQ is taking all possible measures to prevent the introduction of this disease into its territory.

Could bird flu trigger the next pandemic?

Only one human infection has been recorded in North America this year: a man exposed to infected dairy cattle in Texas whose symptoms were limited to red eyes.

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In 2022, a Colorado man was also infected after participating in the slaughter of infected poultry. He experienced minor symptoms, reporting fatigue before making a full recovery.

However, previous human infections elsewhere in the world have resulted in a much higher mortality rate. According to the World Health Organization, since 2003, 889 human cases have been reported in 23 countries. A total of 463 cases proved fatal.

The current risk, and perhaps the most concerning, is that given the way influenza viruses tend to evolve, sustained human-to-human transmission of H5N1 could become a reality.

If this is the case, experts warn that immediate measures will be needed to contain the spread.

“The problem is that, either through a step-by-step process or a leap-and-forth process, a new strain develops that could not only infect animals, but also cause disease in humans and be transmitted between humans.” , said Dr. Donald. Vinh, infectious diseases specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Center.

“It’s this concern that could lead to a pandemic.”

Should we be worried about dairy products?

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Due to the spread of the virus by dairy cows in the United States, where traces of the virus have also been detected in milk, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends against consuming unpasteurized milk.

In Canada, commercially sold dairy cow’s milk is always pasteurized. Recent studies show that the process is effective in inactivating the virus that causes bird flu.

Vinh also highlighted the policies and processes in place to prevent contamination of the food chain.

“There is no reason to think that these measures will be inadequate against bird flu or that bird flu will somehow get through them,” he said, recommending people to avoid eating raw or unpasteurized products.

“If you do,” he added, “a lot of potential pathogens will be waiting for you, and maybe avian flu is one of them.”

In a statement released last week, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency sought to reassure Canadians “that milk and dairy products sold commercially remain safe for consumption.”

The Quebec Dairy Industry Council, for its part, also indicated that it was closely monitoring the situation in the United States and that it was working closely with health authorities.

“According to the information we have, the disease is not present (in any dairy cows) in Canada at the moment,” President Charles Langlois said in an interview. “So for now, there is no worry when it comes to eating Canadian or Quebec dairy products.”

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