Sept. 20, 2023

Vet med researcher receives over $700,000 to protect our food supply

Avian flu is major threat to poultry industry, and funding allows Faizal Careem and his team to end that threat
Faizal Careem
Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

You pull up to your neighbourhood pub for your weekly wing night, only to find that they have no wings. You drive to a trendy restaurant downtown, willing to pay full price. They’ve got wings but at three times the usual price.

What is going on? Avian flu is what’s going on.

Canada is currently in the throes of its worst outbreak ever of highly pathogenic avian flu. The outbreak started in December 2021 in Eastern Canada and has been steadily marching across the country since then. Alberta was hard hit in 2022, resulting in the need to cull 1.4 million birds. Nationally we’ve seen the loss of over seven million birds since 2021.

University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) researcher Dr. Faizal Careem, 
DACPV, DACVM, explains, “Avian flu viruses can be highly pathogenic (HPAI) or low pathogenic AI (LPAI). In general, infection with LPAI viruses result in mild to no clinical manifestations whereas HPAI leads to severe illness with a high mortality rate.

“HPAI infection is one of the greatest concerns to the poultry industry globally. According to the world bank statistics, HPAI is the leading cause of severe economic losses to the global poultry industry.”

We’ve seen this before, and we’ve dealt with it before. Careem continues: “The first HPAI was recorded in 1996 but was contained quickly. The 2004 HPAI outbreak devastated the poultry industry in B.C., recording a loss of 19 million birds in addition to causing two human infections.

“Then, there were minor HPAI outbreaks in 2007, 2014 and 2015. The current HPAI outbreak is the largest in Canadian history and has impacted multiple provinces.”

So, what makes this outbreak so much more troubling? Aside from the sheer scale and geographic distribution, it is hopping species. “We are seeing deaths not only in wild birds, but mammals as well, which we’ve never seen before,” says Careem.

an award of $733,000 from Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR), supported by Egg Farmers of Alberta (EFA) and Alberta Chicken Producers Board (ACPB, Careem and his collaborators from UCVM, Dr. Sylvia Checkly, DVM, Dr. Dayna Goldsmith, DVM, and Dr. Ashish Gupta, DVM, PhD, will work closely with Dr. Yohannes Berhane and Dr. Noel Ritson-Bennett from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, as well as Dr. Bryan Macbeth from Parks Canada.

They will take a multifaceted approach to looking at several routes of entry, including air, water and biosecurity breach. In addition, they’ll be accounting for transmission risk as well as the role that non-migratory birds play in the contamination of poultry flocks. Careem’s goal is to define effective, science-based biosecurity and outbreak control measures.

While there is certainly cause for concern, it’s not all doom and gloom.

“Historically, the transmission of HPAI virus to humans has been linked only to close contact with infected poultry or environments heavily contaminated by this virus, and rarely causes disease in humans,” explains Careem. “There is no evidence to show that eating cooked poultry or eggs could transmit HPAI virus to humans.”

Potentially most important to the average person, Careem also points out that aside from inflationary pressures, we haven’t yet seen price increases on items such as eggs and poultry.

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