Learning from Ontario's avian influenza response

Plan for safety like production

Highlights

  • In 2015, there was a minor outbreak of avian influenza in Ontario
  • Thanks to years of preparation in the agriculture industry, the outbreak was contained to only three farms
  • In response the FBCC developed an emergency response plan and created ways for all four feather organizations to share information

Easter Sunday 2015 is not one Ontario’s poultry industry will soon forget. That’s the day the dreaded phone call came announcing a suspected avian influenza (AI) outbreak. Ingrid DeVisser, Turkey Farmers of Ontario director and chair of the Feather Board Command Centre (FBCC), recalls the sinking feeling of shock and dread as she heard the news.

The poultry industry had been following the growing tally of dead birds in the United States, and memories remained of the toll the 2003 outbreak in British Columbia took on farmers.

As it turned out, Ontario’s outbreak was relatively minor as the disease was contained to only three farms, and there’s general agreement that things could have been much worse. Sound biosecurity and good communications helped keep the outbreak in check, which both DeVisser and FBCC manager and incident commander Dr. Tom Baker chalk up to years of preparation by the sector.

Lessons learned from Ontario’s AI response are likely useful for other sectors of agriculture.

The need for centralized response

After the B.C. outbreak, Ontario’s feather boards – Egg Farmers of Ontario, Turkey Farmers of Ontario, Chicken Farmers of Ontario and the Ontario Broiler Hatching Egg and Chick Commission – began informally sharing information on infectious disease situations, and became convinced the industry needed to work more actively with government during outbreaks. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) leads the response to animal disease emergencies.

In 2007, the industry established a stockpile of protective equipment, disinfectants and cleaning supplies for use by farmers during an outbreak, and as the industry began running disease simulation exercises, it became clear a more formal approach was needed for an effective response.

Growing Forward funding led to the creation of FBCC in 2011. It’s focused exclusively on emergency preparedness, response and recovery of reportable diseases like AI or Newcastle, but also less significant poultry diseases like ILT (infectious laryngotracheitis).

FBCC developed a single integrated emergency response plan for all four feather organizations, built a secure website to enable internal communications without email and phone, and worked to ensure producer databases and GIS mapping capabilities were in place. It has also taken the lead on establishing and strengthening relationships with both provincial and federal government officials.

When the call comes

“When we’re notified of a suspected outbreak, we map a 10-kilometre zone around the farm and notify industry and producers in the area to implement heightened biosecurity, so we can try to contain the disease to one farm,” Baker says.

All poultry production is regulated through supply management, allowing for detailed geo-spatial mapping of premises. And unlike other jurisdictions, all small-flock owners who buy chicks from brokers and dealers are also registered.

When the AI call came, FBCC quickly established an emergency operations centre and mobilized 33 feather board staff to work out of the Turkey Farmers of Ontario office in Kitchener, near the affected area. The team assisted farmers with information updates and protective equipment and supported CFIA, but its most critical role, Baker believes, was maintaining business continuity with respect to new flock placement and moving birds and eggs to market.

“All movement is frozen in control and quarantine zones, and things only move when government is satisfied,” he explains. “Producers had to monitor and submit their flock health on a twice-weekly basis and no movement permits were issued without that. Because of our database, we were able to help them access those permits so they could move product in and out of the zone.”

FBCC took the lead on media outreach too – sole spokesperson DeVisser fielded countless interviews – and two board members were embedded as liaison officers in the CFIA emergency operations centre, a first for the industry.

Post-outbreak assessment

But despite the successes in managing the outbreak, work remains for next time.

According to DeVisser, there’s always room for improvement when it comes to communications, especially with farmers.

“We thought farmers would sign up to our secure website and check it daily but in reality, that’s not the case,” she says. “So we need to focus on how to do a better job communicating with farmers both inside and outside the zone.”

The availability of human resources over a larger or lengthier outbreak needs to be addressed, with many concerned about burnout of those working on the front lines.

Mapping and information-sharing continue to be challenging, but Baker says a new working group of mapping and technology experts has been established, and FBCC is working on finalizing formal information-sharing agreements with CFIA that will allow information to be shared earlier and faster.

The lessons learned from Ontario’s AI response are likely useful for other sectors of agriculture and other regions of the country.

From an AgriSuccess article (May/June 2016) by Lilian Schaer (@FoodAndFarming).