Poultry virus continues its spread through Niagara

broiler chickens Photo credit: Big Stock

Since an outbreak of Infectious Laryngotracheitis (ILT) at an unidentified Smithville poultry farm last December, the virus — which is only experienced by poultry, cannot be transferred to humans and does not affect food safety — has spread to an additional six farms in Niagara, bringing the total farms involved to seven.

A Jan. 25 notice from the Feather Board Command Centre (FBCC) said one of the latest outbreaks occurred close to the original outbreak, but another is “some 15 km southeastward.”

As a result, the FBCC has again expanded its biosecurity advisory area, which now spreads from Stoney Creek and Vineland in its northernmost reaches, down toward Wainfleet and Dunnville at its southernmost reaches. 

Dr. Tom Baker, a veterinarian and FBCC incident commander, has previously said it’s not known how the virus originated in Niagara, but that it can travel on dust particles blown by wind and spread from one farm to another without any direct contact.

“We have approached (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs) for some support on this endeavour,” Baker said this past Tuesday.

Agriculture ministry spokesperson, Christa Roettele, confirmed in a Tuesday email the ministry has “several team members” working on the outbreak.

Veterinary epidemiologists use the virus’ sequenced genetic info, along with information collected from farms, to try to understand how and why a virus is spreading, Roettele’s email read.

“We want to understand where it came from and how it’s moving,” Baker said, noting that the impacted areas in Niagara are “second to none” for poultry and egg production.

Over 72,000 broiler chickens are affected between the most recent outbreaks at farms six and seven. At least 187,128 birds have been affected by the virus’ spread since December.

The respiratory virus is nothing new to the poultry industry, or Niagara’s producers.

Many birds who contract ILT, often through other birds coughing, do not recover. And most broiler chickens are not vaccinated against the virus despite the high mortality associated with it.

Incubation periods for ILT can range up to two weeks before symptoms appear, giving plenty of time for the virus to spread in flocks.

“We’re already two weeks behind when you see it,” Baker said.

The virus is diagnosed using a variety of methods, Baker explained, including postmortems to check for lesions in the respiratory system, examination of flesh tissue and PCR testing.

Once ILT is confirmed by a lab, both the province and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency must be notified immediately. The province then relays diagnosis info to the FBCC.

Certain countries have restrictions on importing Canadian meat from farms with ILT. Russia, for example, only allows imports of Canadian poultry from farms free of ILT for at least six months.

The FBCC continues to advise broiler chicken farmers to get chicks vaccinated at the hatcheries — a process called “in ovo vaccination,” where a vaccine is injected directly into an egg.

The other farms which have previously experienced outbreaks now “seem stable”, the advisory says, but are still considered to be “infected premises” and have strengthened biosecurity measures in place.

As ILT continues to spread through Niagara, farmers are advised to keep a close eye on mortality rates and symptoms of ILT (watery eyes, coughing, sneezing, laboured breathing, wheezing, bloody discharge) and to notify their respective feather board immediately if abnormalities are seen.

Though signs and symptoms vary, Baker said one of the first signs of something amiss is a change in behaviour, notably decreased appetite and water consumption.

Travel within the biosecurity advisory area should be restricted to essential travel only, the notice reads, and multiple stops within the area should be carefully sequenced from lower risk to higher risk.

“Clean clothing and proper vehicle disinfection are critical. Stops in this area should be last of the day. Please try to avoid going to another farm within 24 hours.”