Eight skunks found dead last month in Vancouver and nearby Richmond, B.C., tested positive for avian flu.
British Columbia’s Ministry of Agriculture says the skunks were infected with the same H5N1 strain that has caused the deaths of millions of domestic poultry since the outbreak began in April last year.
The skunks were found in residential areas in both cities and were taken to B.C.’s Animal Health Centre over concerns they may have been deliberately poisoned.
The ministry says in a statement the skunks may have contracted H5N1 by scavenging on infected wild birds.
The statement says while avian flu in skunks is considered to be a low risk to human health, there are always risks when people or pets come into contact with sick or dead wild animals.
“People who encounter a dead skunk in Richmond or Vancouver should leave the animal where it is and contact the B.C. Wildlife Health Program …,” the statement says.
The World Health Organization has said that H5N1 infection in humans can cause severe disease and has a high death rate.
“If the H5N1 virus were to change and become easily transmissible from person to person while retaining its capacity to cause severe disease, the consequences for public health could be very serious,” the WHO says in a fact sheet.
The Critter Care Wildlife Society brought the deaths to public attention in February, when it said seven skunks showing signs of poisoning died in what was possibly someone using rat poison.
Wildlife technician Emma Robson said in a previous interview that the skunks brought in to their site all showed “severe signs of poisoning,” including seizures and foaming at the mouth.
Three died on their way to the centre and the rest were euthanized, she said.
Since last April, B.C.’s Agriculture Ministry says wildlife infected by the flu included more than 20 species of wild birds, two skunks and a fox found in rural areas of the province.
The flu has also spread to poultry farms in B.C. and across Canada, forcing the farms to cull millions of birds when an infection is found.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2023.
The Canadian Press