Alberta confirms 5 cases of avian flu spreading to mammals

Alberta now has five confirmed cases of avian flu that have spread from birds to mammals.

Five skunks from central Alberta have been lab-confirmed as having avian influenza.

“We had an unusually large number of calls about skunks that were acting strange or being found dead and it was all within the area where we had confirmed that the avian influenza virus was present in the snow geese,” Dr. Margo Pybus, a provincial wildlife disease specialist with Fish and Wildlife Alberta Environment and Parks, said.

“We believe that the skunks are feeding on the dead geese and they are getting enough virus that it’s actually affecting the skunks.”

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Pybus said it’s uncommon to see avian flu cause sickness in mammals, and added it’s uncertain at this point which species are more at risk.

“(It’s) very uncommon, but everything is uncommon this year. This is all new to North America. We are learning about this as we go,” Pybus said.

She added that avian influenza is a naturally occurring virus in birds, particularly in waterfowl.

“As we learned with COVID, viruses constantly change and avian influenza virus definitely changes very, very often.”

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Staff and volunteers at the Medicine River Wildlife Centre west of Innisfail, Alta., have been dealing with five sick foxes that were brought in recently.

All five had the same symptoms — blindness, seizures and cloudy eyes, according to executive director Carol Kelly. She said three of them died and two have recovered.

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She said Avian influenza wasn’t even on the radar as a cause until staff started talking with two other wildlife centres.

“We realized that we were all dealing with a total of around 15 foxes, all with identical symptoms,” Kelly said.

“By the time we got the third fox in, we thought this is something very strange. We got an email from an Edmonton rehab centre to say they had just learned that a fox can get this (avian flu) by eating dead birds. It was at that point that we connected this,” Kelly said.

“We are learning on the fly because it’s so new.”

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The fox cases haven’t been confirmed yet by any Alberta labs, which are currently swamped dealing with poultry infections.

However, one dead fox from the Edmonton area is being tested now.

“The labs are entirely focused on trying to provide results that help control that disease in poultry so it doesn’t spread any further,” Pybus said. “Alberta is one of the hardest-hit provinces for the poultry industry with this virus and so our labs are just overwhelmed with poultry samples right now.”

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The foxes that survived at the Medicine River Wildlife Centre have been nursed back to health. They were treated with plenty of hydration and eye drops and are expected to be released this week.

Sick birds have not been as lucky.

Around 20 birds have died from avian flu at the wildlife centre.

According to Pybus, Alberta’s outbreak is believed to be on the decline due to the natural migration of geese.

“We do believe that the outbreak is on the downside.  We have far fewer calls about dead birds or dead skunks last week than the previous weeks, and that would be consistent with most of the virus now having moved out of the province,” Pybus said.

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