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MAPAQ asks dairy producers to watch for avian flu symptoms in cattle

A rare spillover infection of the highly pathogenic avian influenza to a cow has resulted in an outbreak of the disease on dairy farms in nine U.S. states. In response, Quebec has developed a strategy to prevent, monitor, and protect against the spread of the disease in dairy cattle.

Dairy producers were invited to participate in a detailed webinar presented by Dr. Luc Bergeron, the head veterinarian at the Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation (MAPAQ), on May 9.

“The collaboration of the entire industry of dairy producers is extremely important to monitor this disease, to try to prevent its introduction into Quebec and Canada, and if ever the disease is introduced, to be able to control it on farms,” said Bergeron, before discussing the clinical portrait and epidemiology of the disease.

On March 25, the United States Department of Agriculture informed the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) that a case of pathogenic avian influenza had been confirmed in dairy cattle. An initial transmission from a wild bird to a dairy cow occurred in Texas. Once infected, the cow was able to excrete the disease in its milk and transmit the virus from one cow to another via contaminated milking equipment, for example. As of May 12, at least 42 cases were confirmed in the United States. To date, there have no cases detected in calves or in beef cattle.

Currently, no cases have been identified in Canada.

Bergeron noted that while avian flu is not a severe disease that causes mortality in cattle, it can result in negative economic impacts on a farm. There is a possibility that transmission could occur between dairy and poultry farms, where the consequences are much more catastrophic. He cautioned there is also a concern that the virus could mutate and become more virulent, or more easily transmissible to humans. A positive human infection was recorded in the United States on April 1.

The disease more severely impacts older dairy cows and those that have been in milk for over 150 days. Bergeron explained that in all cases, an infected cow will have a drop in milk production, and will produce milk that is thicker in consistency, like colostrum. The animal will also have a decreased appetite. Morbidity is around 10 per cent, and clinical signs will last from 10 to 14 days. Asymptomatic infections are also possible. Bergeron suggested a return to normal could take several weeks following a positive diagnosis on a farm.

To prevent the disease from spreading, biosecurity measures should be implemented on farms and the introduction of new cattle should be limited. “If you want to buy a dairy cow, now is not the time to buy one from the United States. If you want to participate in an agricultural show in the U.S., now is not the time,” said Bergeron. He also cautioned against keeping poultry in dairy barns.

Avian flu is a reportable disease, and any symptoms should be communicated to the CFIA and MAPAQ, which will conduct an epidemiological investigation. If a positive case is identified, the farm will be asked to self-quarantine. Sick cattle will be isolated, and general hygiene and especially milking hygiene will be very important. Raw milk from sick cows will be discarded.

Bergeron encouraged producers to remain positive, and to collaborate with officials. He explained that pasteurization kills the virus and that the milk on store shelves is safe to drink; however, raw milk should not be consumed.

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