Canada has discovered a strain of H5 avian flu in 33 wild migratory ducks but it is unlikely to be the killer H5N1 strain which has spread from Southeast Asia to Europe, a top health official said Monday.
Jim Clark of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said a recent survey of 4,800 healthy wild birds had found the H5 virus in 28 ducks in the eastern province of Quebec and five in the central province of Manitoba.
“These findings do not indicate that we are dealing with a virus strain capable of causing significant illness,” Clark told a news conference. “The evidence we have observed strongly indicates that these healthy birds were not infected with the same virus that is currently present in Asia.”
The H5N1 strain was transmitted to Europe by migratory birds and some experts say it is likely to spread the same way to the rest of the world.
At least 62 people have died from bird flu in an outbreak which started in Asia late in 2003. Experts fear the H5N1 virus strain will mutate just enough to allow it to pass easily from person to person, potentially causing a catastrophic pandemic as humans lack immunity to it.
The final tests on the Canadian bird samples will be ready in about a week. There are nine known N strains of the H5 virus.
Questioned on why he was announcing the discovery of a nonlethal strain of bird flu, Clark said, “I can’t categorically state that what we’re dealing with here isn’t H5N1. It’s highly unlikely.”
Jim Rogers, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said low-pathogen avian influenza was endemic in the wild bird population.
“Birds have a flu season just like humans do every year. Now if it were high-pathogen, that would be a different story,” he said.
Clark said poultry and wild birds in Canada could safely be consumed if normal sanitary precautions were taken in their handling and cooking.
Ottawa decided to carry out the wild bird survey -- the first of its kind in Canada -- after a major bird flu outbreak in early 2004 in British Columbia’s Fraser River valley east of Vancouver. It caused no major human health problems, but forced the culling of some 16 million poultry.
The disease was initially believed to have been a low pathogen version of the H7N3 strain that was spread to chickens from a wild bird. It then mutated to a high-pathogenic version of the disease that quickly spread to other farms.