VICTORIA — British Columbia's provincial health officer is urging people living or working on the province's poultry farms to "prioritize" getting influenza vaccinations as avian flu spreads among flocks this fall.
Dr. Bonnie Henry said while avian flu doesn't transmit easily from birds to humans, infections are possible — creating a risk the virus will mutate into a more dangerous form.
"If we have somebody who gets infected with both the human and the bird virus, that virus can re-assort … and create a new influenza virus that could be more infectious to humans," said Henry at an update Friday on B.C.'s respiratory illness season.
"So that's a risk that's in the back of our mind all the time with these."
That is why people connected to poultry farms are being asked to vaccinate against the human strains right away, she said.
Scientists and health officials around the world have long been concerned that a mutation of avian flu into a strain that is easily transmissible among humans could trigger a global pandemic.
Henry said at least 16 farms in B.C. have been affected by the latest avian flu outbreaks, with Canadian Food Inspection Agency data showing nine commercial infected zones, mostly in the Fraser Valley.
The number of infected flocks has grown dramatically in recent weeks, a development Henry said did not surprise officials.
She said health authorities are keeping a close eye on whether the return of migratory seabirds in the fall would bring about new outbreaks of avian flu, after spring migrations triggered the last cluster of outbreaks in the province.
"So far, globally, there's been very little spillover infecting humans," Henry said. "But it can happen.
"The risk of infection is low for most of us, given the limited contact we'd generally have with infected birds. But people like workers on poultry farms, farm families and others who have close contact with birds, (we) really encourage you to make sure you're taking the appropriate precautions."
The province said it has administered more than one million influenza vaccines and close to 850,000 COVID-19 shots since launching its respiratory immunization campaign in October.
Provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix said he was happy to see the response so far to the vaccination campaign and the province has procured enough doses for everyone.
"Everyone who wants a flu shot will receive one, and I continue to urge people aged six months and older to get their COVID-19 and influenza vaccines as soon as they are due," Dix said in a statement.
Provincial trends for respiratory illnesses have slowed, with data from the BC Centre for Disease Control showing sharp drops in hospitalization, deaths and positivity rates for COVID-19.
The CDC says there were 144 new COVID-19 hospitalizations in the week ending Nov. 4, fewer than half the 296 hospitalizations three weeks earlier.
Henry said the dropping numbers may reflect the large portion of B.C.'s population — particularly the elderly — who are getting vaccinated.
She said vaccination had proven effective against the latest and most prevalent strain of COVID-19, but British Columbians must remain vigilant since health officials are still learning about the virus's seasonal trends — and outbreaks may flare up periodically.
"This is not over," Henry said. "It's not behind us, and it has still come back and surprised us in the past."
Island Health said in a statement earlier Thursday that a COVID-19 outbreak had been declared at the centre unit of Saanich Peninsula Hospital, with 15 patients infected and all experiencing mild illness.
There are also ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks at Abbotsford Regional and Chilliwack General hospitals in the Fraser Health region.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2023.
The Canadian Press