N.W.T. health department and hunters prepare for avian flu

The territorial government issued a public service announcement earlier this week, warning people about a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza. Experts have said that the risk to humans is low. 

“Those words [highly pathogenic] always sound a little scary,” said Dr. Naima Jutha, the territorial wildlife veterinarian and chief veterinary officer. “But that’s actually referring to their potential to spill over into domestic poultry.”

Ducks, geese, gulls and other wild birds naturally carry avian influenza. This particular strain — H5N1 — has rapidly spread into domesticated birds on commercial farms in the U.S. and more southern parts of Canada. The outbreaks have resulted in the mass euthanization of nearly two million chickens across the country. 

“What we’re seeing this year in the South, that’s providing a great early warning system for us up here in the Northwest Territories,” Jutha said. 

There are currently no confirmed cases of avian influenza in the N.W.T., but Jutha said she expects that to change in the coming months, as more birds migrate up north for the summer.

 And as goose hunting season begins in the territory, Jutha said that people should take extra precautions — such as wearing gloves and washing equipment after use — to make sure that they are staying safe. 

A view of a street in Ulukhaktok. Seasoned hunters from Ulukhaktok said they are concerned about the reports of the avian flu. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

N.W.T. hunters concerned 

For Jack Akhiatak, spring hunting is an annual tradition. Akhiatak is an experienced hunter from Ulukhaktok, N.W.T.  

He is excited about the upcoming hunting season.

“The geese, the ducks, the birds — we always look forward to any birds,” he said. 

He said that he began hearing about the virus in the news a couple of weeks ago, in reports about outbreaks in southern provinces.

“That kind of woke me up,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God. They’re going to reach here. Because they come way up here.'” 

Ducks, geese, gulls and other wild birds naturally carry avian influenza. (Jonathan Collicott/CBC News)

Akhiatak said that he will be warning people about avian influenza and taking extra precautions to avoid unknowingly giving his family and friends a diseased bird.

“When we hunt, we share everything,” he said.  “And for all these young hunters these days, they do bring all their catches to their grandparents or their great grandparents.

“So it would be very scary to give someone food that’s not healthy for you.”

Another seasoned hunter from Ulukhaktok, David Kuptana, said that he’s also concerned about the risk of handling birds that may have avian flu — especially for children that are just learning how to hunt. 

“Is it safe enough for the younger kids to grab [the birds] with their mitts or whatever? Cause we don’t know what they’re carrying.” 

Kuptana said that he has seen pictures of sick birds circulating on social media and Facebook.

“There are some geese [in pictures] that have foamy mouths,” he said. “Some other ones just have worms in them, or some kind of bugs in them. So that’s the big thing I’m kinda worried about now for the spring.” 

Kuptana is prepared to follow the health department’s recommended protocols and report suspected cases of bird flu to the N.W.T’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR). 

 “I already bought myself a box of rubber gloves in case we run into those kinds of birds,”  he said. “Just in case we happen to see anything like that, and we need to put it in a bag and bring it to ENR.” 

At this point, Jutha is uncertain about whether or not the N.W.T. will have the same high numbers of cases as other parts of the country. 

“What is the big picture going to look like of what we experience up here in the North versus what’s been going on around Canada?” she said. 

“I don’t have a crystal ball on that one. But we do know these birds have migratory pathways. We do know that they cross into the territory.”

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