The Fraser Valley has been hit by what disease-control experts suspect is the third outbreak of avian flu to affect the prime agricultural area's numerous poultry flocks in less than five years.
After samples taken from distressed turkeys at a 50,000-bird operation near Abbotsford were found to contain signs of the H5 virus, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency immediately slapped a quarantine on the farm and about two dozen others within a three-kilometre radius.
CFIA officials were waiting for the initial diagnosis to be confirmed by its national testing laboratory in Winnipeg before taking further action. Results are expected to be released some time today.
Sandra Stephens, a disease-control specialist with the agency, said the affected farm's large turkey flock would be destroyed if the avian flu virus is substantiated, even though it appears to be a low pathogenic strain.
"We want to nip it in the bud, to make sure there is no chance that it will continue to circulate and make a jump from being low-path to high-path," Dr. Stephens said yesterday.
In 2004, a low-pathogenic form of bird flu made a rapid conversion to a lethal, high-pathogenic virus in a Fraser Valley poultry barn, resulting in the killing of 17 million birds, the largest agricultural cull in Canadian history.
"That really demonstrated the reason why we act very quickly on each H5 and H7 virus [another bird flu strain]" Dr. Stephens said. "This virus multiplies incredibly fast in a bird's body."
Three years ago, more than 60,000 birds were destroyed and 80 farms quarantined for a month, after an avian flu virus was identified at a Fraser Valley commercial duck operation.
She said the owner of the large turkey operation, E&H Farms, became concerned when some of his birds showed signs of respiratory infection.
"They're listening to the sound of the birds. ... There's a sound when everybody's healthy and happy, and then there's the sound when somebody's not doing so good in there," Dr. Stephens explained. "Maybe a little bit of coughing or sneezing. You can also be looking at their feed and water consumption as an indication of how happy they are."
The owner called in a veterinarian, who submitted samples from the out-of-sorts turkeys to a nearby provincial testing lab. The lab discovered antibodies for the H5 virus. Those were then dispatched for official confirmation to the National Centre for Foreign Animal Diseases in Winnipeg, which is Canada's world-recognized reference lab for avian influenza.
A final finding that the virus is present on the turkey farm would likely result in all poultry products from the area being banned from export markets for at least three months.
However, Ray Nickel, president of the B.C. Poultry Association, said a border closing would not be devastating to Fraser Valley poultry producers. "So much of what we do is for domestic supply. We're not really dependent on exporting our poultry."
Meanwhile, all was quiet yesterday at the farm under scrutiny. A long metal structure that might have held the turkeys had lengthy strips of material covering openings along the side of the building. The huge door was shut tight.
Two security commissioners were patrolling the farm's driveway stopping anyone who approached the property, including two representatives from WorkSafe B.C. who wanted to ensure no one was in the quarantined area.
Several neighbouring farms had signs in bright red lettering warning: "Attention: Avian Influenza Control Measures Are in Effect. Unauthorized entry is prohibited. It is illegal for anyone to enter this property without the owner's permission."
Eddie Van Dongen, who has an adjacent farm, described the family that runs the turkey farm as "nice people. ... There's never been any problem with any of them. They are really hard-working people."
Dr. Stephens said poultry flocks within the three-kilometre quarantined perimeter will also be tested to ensure the virus has not spread. "It's a very highly populated area for poultry," she said.