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Health workers in protective gear enter a chicken farm during a health alert over a bird flu outbreak in Sacaba, Bolivia, on Jan. 31Juan Karita/The Associated Press

An unprecedented avian flu outbreak that has wreaked havoc on flocks around the world has forced the cull of millions of birds in Canada, with the federal government paying out tens of millions of dollars in compensation.

There have been about 7.2 million domestic birds affected by H5N1 avian influenza, or bird flu, in Canada since this strain of the virus was first detected in the country more than a year ago, according to the most recent data available from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

“The current global avian influenza (AI) outbreak has been unprecedented,” CFIA spokesperson Christine Nasrallah wrote in an e-mail.

The disease, which has spread across Asia and Europe and can occasionally infect humans, was seen in Canada for the first time in six years when it was identified in Newfoundland in December, 2021.

British Columbia is the province where the biggest impact has been felt, with 3.7 million birds affected at 103 premises, including 56 that are currently considered infected. There have been 1.4 million birds affected in Alberta; 748,000 in Ontario; 576,000 in Quebec; and 495,000 in Saskatchewan.

The most recent cases were detected in Quebec and Nova Scotia earlier this month, and in B.C. in late January.

There have also been 1,730 confirmed cases of wild birds infected with bird flu, according to CFIA data. Experts have warned that the actual number of infected wild birds is likely to be much higher.

While the virus can infect people who have had contact with infected birds, the World Health Organization says the risk to humans is low. CFIA says on its website there is no evidence to suggest that eating cooked poultry or eggs could lead to transmission. The agency said that there have been no known human cases of bird flu associated with the current outbreak in Canada and no evidence globally of sustained transmission between people.

Ms. Nasrallah said the situation has affected egg and poultry producers, hatcheries and suppliers. Canadian exports have also been affected because of avian-flu-related restrictions elsewhere.

She said that more than $82-million has been paid to date as compensation for animals destroyed as part of the national bird flu response.

The number of domestic birds affected so far in Canada amounts to less than 1 per cent of the more than 790 million birds raised by Canadian producers in 2022, Ms. Nasrallah said.

Ray Nickel, a poultry farmer in South Abbotsford, B.C., and spokesperson for B.C. Poultry Association’s emergency operations centre, had turkeys on one farm wiped out by the avian flu in December. He said it’s been a “painful” recovery for him and other farmers across the province, but the situation has since improved.

“There’s a lot of relief right now that we’ve actually stopped adding cases because, for a while there, it seemed pretty daunting,” he said. “But I think if we’re looking forward, one of the things that producers probably value the most is certainty and that is at risk right now.”

He said industry members are having conversations about vaccines, which is an emerging piece of protection, and biosecurity strategies but questions remain about transmission. As epidemiology reports are completed, Mr. Nickel said there will be greater understanding of how the virus is making its way inside different farms and facilities.

Lauren Kennedy, a spokesperson for Chicken Farmers of Canada, a national trade association, wrote in an e-mail that farmers are worried and taking the outbreak seriously. She said they are taking extra measures to limit spread, on top of the stringent biosecurity protocols for cleaning and disinfecting they follow on a regular basis.

Ms. Kennedy also said there is currently no supply issue and that, consequently, “this should not impact the price” of poultry and egg products, although she underscored that retailers, not farmers, set retail prices.

Jean-Michel Laurin, president of the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council, a national trade association that represents chicken, turkey and egg processors and hatcheries, said outbreaks are having a ripple effect across the industry. He said a significant amount of chicken and turkey is exported to other countries but some of those places put restrictions on provinces, or even entire countries, when outbreaks have occurred. On the import side, Mr. Laurin said the availability of goods, such as broiler hatching eggs and chicks, has been limited.

The World Organization for Animal Health noted in its latest global situation report that about 160 bird-flu outbreaks have been reported worldwide over a three-week period in January, during which more than three million birds were culled or otherwise died. Europe was the main region affected, followed by North America and Asia.

Avian flu has become endemic for the first time in some wild birds that transmit the virus to poultry, according to veterinarians and disease experts, who warned earlier this week that it is now a year-round problem rather than seasonal.

The WOAH report also noted two recent instances of bird flu in mammals: one affecting minks in Spain in January, and one affecting foxes and otters in Britain in December.

Shayan Sharif, an avian immunologist with the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, said it is concerning how the virus is adapting. In Peru, hundreds of sea lions have died of suspected avian flu, which he described as a “dilemma and enigma.”

“When it becomes adapted to mammals, it is one step closer to getting adapted to humans and perhaps causing human-to-human transmission,” Dr. Sharif said. “Should we be panicking at the moment? No, not at all. This is not the time to panic. This is the time to get ready for a potential pandemic virus.”

He said it is critical that a data-sharing system is created to track avian flu cases, among all species, in Canada and globally, in addition to further exploring vaccines for humans and poultry.

“This is a wake-up call,” he said.

With reports from The Canadian Press and Reuters