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  Emergency planners study bird flu response

By Catherine Thompson - AgriNews Staff Writer

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  • North Stormont- What if bird flu hit the area? The oft-discussed theme of national television broadcasts became the topic of an emergency training exercise in North Stormont Township on June 6.

    Bill Shearing, who is the Emergency Management Facilitator for several townships in Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry conducted the exercise, describing it as a "paper exercise", similar to one they did in 1989, which would better simulate the warning stage of an emergency.

    In this scenario, the time and weather conditions were "as now", but the health of the region's poultry flocks was at risk, as an outbreak of "bird flu" had occurred in large and backyard poultry operations in Southwestern Ontario.

    Shearing explained the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre (PEOC) had been activated, and there was a report of a suspected case in Prescott County, within 100 kilometres of North Stormont.

    All Community Emergency Management Coordinators were informed they should prepare their EOCs (Emergency Operations Centres), since this was the "warning phase" of an emergency for their community. They were advised to activate their emergency response plans to consider the threat of an outbreak of the disease in their area.

    Chairing the meeting of the North Stormont Community Control Group was Mayor Dennis Fife, also head of the CCG, who asked them to consider a number of questions, like the number of major poultry operations in the area. It was reported there were two or three large poultry and numerous backyard operations throughout the township.

    One of the committee members said these would be bigger concerns than the larger operations, which are in the business of buying, selling and controlling their stock for income, and that the biggest transfer of disease would take place in backyard operations.

    In response to a question about the risk to human health, Darlene Rose with the Eastern Ontario Health Unit said the strain of disease would not be known until briefings were held.

    "It's in Western Ontario first before it comes to Eastern Ontario, so you'd have an idea. It's containment you really want to make sure people use the proper hygiene and procedures. You don't want to be living with the birds to be exposed to them. That's the way you'll try and prevent it at first."

    During an outbreak of avian influenza among poultry, there is a risk to people who have contact with infected birds. Health professionals are most concerned about the 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong of the H5N1 virus that infected 18 people and killed six.

    A couple of years ago, there was an outbreak of different but related kinds of avian flu, (low pathogenecity H7 and (high pathogenecity HPA1) in British Columbia's Fraser Valley. The emergency exercise drew on the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) overview of the events that occurred from February to April 2004.

    In that situation, farms were quarantined and birds destroyed not only at the affected operations, including 42 commercial and 11 backyard, but all those within three kilometres of the outbreak. The federal government restricted movement and set up disinfection checkpoints, requiring bird owners to prevent unauthorized access to their property. By June 3, no new cases had been reported for 21 days and "depopulation" activities were suspended the next day.

    Another question concerned flocks of wild waterfowl in the area, and it was noted that within a 10-minute drive of the township, a park system (St. Lawrence Parks) housed millions of the birds.

    While the CFIA website states there is no definitive epidemiological evidence linking wild waterfowl to the outbreak in British Columbia, scientists recognize the birds as natural reservoirs of avian influenza virus.

    "Farm-to-farm movement of people, equipment or birds likely spread the virus over long distances, but once the virus was introduced into a densely populated region, airborne transmission through dust or feathers may have infected flocks," the CFIA website states.

    Finch Fire Chief Joe Bakker asked about regular testing of poultry operations, and the speed of communications when disease strikes. Rose replied there is provincial surveillance similar to that conducted for West Nile Virus.

    "Our problem could be the backyard operations. If someone has 100 birds and 10 die, he's not going to go around and tell someone, because you might find out he had 800," said Bakker.

    It was Rose's opinion that all health units in the area would be advised and poultry owners would be told to increase their surveillance, submitting any birds that could be infected for testing.

    Bakker was still concerned that a small operator might ship birds out during the time lapse for information to get around.

    "They wouldn't be relying on people to come forward. There would be people out there collecting and getting samples," said Rose.

    "Most big poultry operations would already know that through the system," Bakker replied.

    Shearing said the poultry owners should know there was a problem and to stay in contact with the officials.

    In case of an actual outbreak of the disease, the township would also face the issue of disposal of flocks of infected birds, which in the British Columbia outbreak was through burial, incineration or composting.

    Whether the emergency plan were activated or not activated, either way, it could cost people hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Deputy Mayor Bill McGimpsey.

    "If you don't activate it and it spreads, it's really bad. If you do activate it and nothing happens, people are upset that there have been economic problems."

    But Shearing pointed out this exercise was merely activating the plan, "getting people to come in" as opposed to declaring a state of emergency. Any decision of that nature would be taken later on depending how the situation went. "The mayor declares a state of emergency, but the Emergency Management Coordinator (or other members of the control group) can activate the plan," he said.

    McGimpsey pointed out the Monkland Egg Grading Station goes from farm to farm, picking up eggs from the surrounding areas including Prescott-Russell. This could be a concern in transporting the disease.

    "As soon as it was discovered anywhere, that farm would be quarantined, and no trucks could go in and out. Any trucks that had been there previous to that, they'd find out where they went," said Bakker.

    One of the group asked if there were enough officials to look after sites if the situation encompassed the entire region.

    "We're here to take care of our area. The other agencies are going to be in charge of shutting down the farms or the egg grading station," said Bakker.

    Also discussed was the agency to take the lead in a real scenario. One suggestion was the ‘health' official would be in charge of the site, but the CFIA representing the federal government would be the umbrella authority.

    He said the suggestion of avian influenza came from the OMAFRA (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs) emergency management coordinator and one exercise had been done in Western Ontario. "If it does hit the agricultural community, there will be some warning and to me, it would be logical to bring the group together and brainstorm the ‘what ifs'", Shearing said.

    "We don't know what the answers are, we don't have the experts in the field. In a real situation, I think we'd be calling on OMAFRA to help us," Shearing said.

    In conclusion, Shearing said if the avian influenza hit humans, "we're dealing with large areas and at what level are we going to do things in future. When the SARS epidemic came out, it was the first time there was ever a provincial emergency declared. Now that they broke that hurdle, this could be considered a provincial emergency and then it is going to be run by the province. In all cases, you're looking for a provincial influenza plan, but the communities still have responsibilities. So there could be a need for this group to be together to look after the municipality."

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