In a meeting with a staffer from the City of Toronto a couple of weeks ago, I expanded my concerns about the UrbanHensTO Pilot Project. While these concerns were aimed at stopping the pilot project in Toronto, all the same data applies to Ottawa and areas across Ontario and even parts of Canada.
This is what I had to say:
--- Since 2021 the spread of a highly infectious variant (H5N1) of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), commonly referred to as “bird flu”, has increased substantially. In Ontario alone, the Canadian Food & Inspection Agency estimates that the number of birds impacted is over 700,000. The National Collaborating Center for Environmental Health states that there has been the culling of 7.2 million chickens in Canada because of recent HPAI outbreaks. Over 58.8 million chickens in the United States of America have been killed because of HPAI. Of course, these are just the reported numbers, imagine the tip of an iceberg.
There have also been several confirmed cases of HPAI in wild mammals in Ontario such as raccoons and foxes. There have been recent cases in other mammals such as domestic house cats (in France, Netherlands, Iraq, Austria, Germany, Thailand, South Korea, and Indonesia), otters, sea lions, mink, and bears. While luckily Toronto doesn’t have many sea lions, it’s important to note that the H5N1 strain of HPAI originated in intensive poultry farms in Asia and has since spread around the globe.
The Toronto Wildlife Center has confirmed cases of HPAI and released a statement that demonstrates the level of investment required to care for positive cases. It is not a matter of if, but when, HPAI will begin to spread from wild birds to backyard hens in Toronto.
I am not the only one concerned. Public health officials have been warning about HPAI transmission to humans. In February an 11-year-old girl died from HPAI after interacting with her infected backyard chickens. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, warned that the world had to prepare for a possible bird-flu pandemic stating, “H5N1 has spread widely in wild birds and poultry for 25 years but the recent spillover to mammals needs to be monitored closely. We must prepare for any change in the status quo.” Dr. Shayan Sharif, a professor at the University of Guelph and the Associate Dean of the school’s Ontario Veterinary College, said there is a concern as it seems the virus is becoming more adapted to infecting mammals. Virologist Tom Peacock echoes these concerns in an article highlighting the mutations which occurred in the Spanish mink farm outbreak. Professor Ian Brown, Head of Virology for Brittan’s Animal and Plant Health Agency, highlights the scope of the issue saying, “It is unusual that this particular event is dominated by one particular strain over such a big geographical area. I can’t remember any time since 1996 [when H5N1 started], where a single strain has caused so much global spread.” Brian Stevens, a wildlife pathologist for the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, links these concerns back to the keeping of backyard chickens expressing, "This [strain] is actually causing severe illness and death of wild birds in large numbers, which we haven't seen previously. Any time we have a highly pathogenic strain, there is always that concern that it could jump into both commercial or backyard flocks of poultry."
As we saw with COVID-19 our current healthcare systems are not working well enough or fast enough to manage another potential pandemic. Toronto Public Health is unlikely to be equipped to handle not one but two large-scale crises. Yes, humans rarely get HPAI, but when they do it is usually from coming in direct contact with infected birds. The virus can be transmitted to humans from droppings of infected birds and these droppings can remain infectious for several days. It can even be transmitted via dust. It is not only the participants in this pilot project but neighbours who are inadvertently put at risk.
Currently, no education or training on chicken health or biosecurity is required by backyard chicken owners. Improper small flock biosecurity measures could be disastrous. Biosecurity measures also require the use of N95 masks and gloves. Both of these, if required in larger amounts, could negatively affect access for immunocompromised humans. Biosecurity measures against HPAI require that chickens must be kept indoors, which can be very stressful for chickens reducing their immunity and putting them even further at risk for contracting contagious diseases.
Furthermore, the concern in this transmission is not only on the impact on the backyard hens and public health units, but the major impact on commercial food producers. A Nature.Org article said it best: “Poultry farms are a key battleground in the fight against H5N1. Outbreaks on farms threaten food security and provide opportunities for the virus to spread to farm workers. For decades, farmers have controlled the disease by culling infected animals. But now, with many countries experiencing outbreaks on dozens of farms every month, this is becoming untenable.”
In the United States, the Center for Disease Control recommends preventative measures to protect against HPAI, like avoiding direct contact with birds, either wild or farmed.
Update: Since submitting this information on March 13, 2023 additional causes for concern have surfaced. There have been three confirmed infected premises of HPAI in Southern Ontario. This is such a high cause for concern that even the Toronto Zoo is taking steps to remove their birds from outdoor spaces. Just earlier this spring, a companion dog died in Oshawa after being exposed to a goose which was infected with HPAI. I am fearful if minimally regulated backyard bird programs, such as UrbanHensTO, continue, it will cause an AvianFlu outbreak in the city meaning a culling of innocent birds that have been bred solely for this program. It would be a needless death.