The mystery of Fraser Valley (Canada) bird flu and reporting on it

Yesterday there was a fairly long story from the wire service Canadian Press that wasn't written by their ace flu reporter, Helen Branswell. It carried the byline of Greg Joyce. I'll come back to why I mention this at the end of this post, but first, here's what it was about:

Three of four of the most recent avian flu outbreaks in Canada have broken out in British Columbia's Fraser Valley but despite years of trying to figure it out, they still can't explain why the valley attracts the virus.

In the latest outbreak, 60,000 turkeys were culled on an Abbotsford, B.C., farm last week.

Tests so far indicate the virus has not spread to any other poultry producers within a three-kilometre quarantine zone.

That wasn't the case in the valley's first outbreak in 2004 when an H7-type flu transformed into a highly contagious strain.

Farm after farm was quarantined until finally about 15 million birds — almost the entire valley poultry population — was destroyed.

The second Fraser Valley outbreak in November 2005 saw two duck farms infected with the H5N2 strain of the virus.

In 2007, a highly pathogenic H7N3 strain was found in Saskatchewan on a farm that produced hatching eggs to produce broiler chickens.

Experts have difficulty explaining why the Fraser Valley has been hit so often but there are theories. (Greg Joyce, Canadian Press via Globe and Mail)

The rest of the story is about those theories and their implications. The story quotes two experts, Ron Lewis, chief veterinary officer for British Columbia and Sandra Stephens, veterinary program specialist with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Both speculate that the Valley is vulnerable for at least two reasons. The first is that it's on the Pacific flyway, so virus carrying wild aquatic waterfowl are continually bringing new viruses. They note that infected birds are capable of shedding copious viral particles and various flocks will comingle at either end of their migration paths. The North American flyways are not isolated from other flyways, so the virus can move from one place to another, plausibly even from Asia or Europe. So why the Fraser Valley? That's the second reason. While any poultry farm can be exposed to wild birds, the Fraser Valley has an unusually dense concentration of some 600 farms.

So those two factors suggest that these areas in Canada are at special risk from any avian influenza virus, including highly pathogenic H5N1. That's a pretty scary prospect both from the economic and public health perspectives so raising it is itself potentially risky, at least from the political point of view. Don't worry:

Mr. Lewis [the British Columbia veterinary officer] suggests it's highly unlikely.

In countries where H5N1 occurred there are very close living conditions between poultry and people, he says.

“We don't have that kind of proximity to wild and commercial ducks co-habiting in many cases that is present in those countries,” he says.

Moreover, Mr. Lewis says, the intense biosecurity measures introduced in Canada after the 2004 Fraser Valley outbreak are not practised in many of those countries.

“We now have a mandatory biosecurity program in place for all of the commercially-regulated poultry industry,” he says.

“The industry has achieved a very high level of compliance with those biosecurity protocols,” says Mr. Lewis, estimating the compliance rate at about 98 per cent of the industry.

If you think this argument through you'll see it isn't exactly coherent. At the least there are some missing pieces. The fact that humans live close to birds in places where highly pathogenic H5N1 is endemic has no bearing on whether it can be brought to Canada via long distance migratory birds. Large concentrations of industrial poultry operations is pertinent, but the Fraser Valley has that. There is perhaps a missing link that says wild birds infected with highly pathogenic H5N1 can't make a long distance migration, but that is a matter of uncertainty and in any event wasn't a case made in the story. There seems also to be a statement that wild birds and commercial poultry don't co-habit in Canada the way they do where H5N1 is endemic, but then the argument about why the Fraser Valley has been hit three times in recent years by avian influenza viruses brought by migrating birds seems to be inconsistent.

For the same reason it is discordant to claim that Canada now has such stringent biosecurity measures for commercially regulated poultry that a problem is very unlikely. Then how come there have been two more, including the most recent. The answer is given at the outset: they don't know. So how do they know an outbreak with highly pathogenic H5N1 is very unlikely? Same answer. They don't.

We sometimes comment on reporting here because we like to reward good reporting and gently prod reporting that could be better. We can't help but feel that if Helen Branswell had written this story it would have been better, for several reasons. Branswell knows the subject thoroughly and would know the questions to ask. That kind of experience doesn't come over night, so there is time for a reporter like Mr. Joyce to school himself in the subject should he choose. The article is not terrible, by any means, but given the importance of the subject we'd like to have the kind of high level reporting an experienced reporter can bring to it. And Helen Branswell is a superior reporter with a proven track record of accuracy. A scientist can speak to her and be assured his or her comments will be correctly and clearly explained. Helen Branswell does this so effortlessly we often don't notice the great skill it takes, but it's noticed by those who deal with her regularly as a source. A consequence is that she probably has one of the best flu scientist rolodexes in journalism. She knows the players so she knows whom to call for what and when she calls they will take her all and answer her questions confident they will be properly reported. In this case we have a longish story based entirely on stenography from two government officials.

I hope Mr. Joyce isn't discouraged by this criticism. As I said, it's not such a bad job and I am holding him to a pretty high standard. On the other hand, high standards for reporting are unusually important on this subject. And they don't get much higher than your colleague Helen Branswell's work.

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I also noticed the disconnect between the officials' "alarmist" speculation about flyways and their "reassurist" speculation about why the serious kind of H5N1 is unlikely to plop down from the skies over Fraser Valley. Very amusing, how they all imagine they are using "sound science" when they open their mouths and speculate.

More interesting was the lack of journalistic inquiry into the Missing Neurominidase.

On January 24, Canada reported the "H5" outbreak to OIE, with all kinds of detail about the cleavage site being 99+% similar to some known H5N2 cleavage site, etc. etc.

But by February 1, Canada's National Lab still didn't know what the "H5" virus' N was, or at least they were not reporting it, and not explaining why they were not reporting it.

A "flu journalist" would be following the H5N? outbreak with curiosity about this. Greg Joyce did a way better than average job of covering a complex flu story, but he is not a flu journalist.

It is a reminder of how few superb medical and science journalists there are, and a reminder that we need superb journalists to hold officials to account by asking much harder questions, and asking secondary expert sources to comment. Readers of this blog all know that Helen Branswell does this routinely.

By Path Forward (not verified) on 02 Feb 2009 #permalink

For my money, this stuff is out and running and more than one flu doc...Webster for one has repeatedly stated that once a flu virus got into humans by whatever means it has started a slow or fast run. He also said we will all eventually get it at some capacity once its out there, 100% for some people and they wont make it.

His lecture of two years ago still sits in my mind as he showed those flyways and he was was wondering why the birds that were coming down werent carrying it. He noted all of the testing in Canada and AK that studiously showed NO BF.

It was about that time that it was breaking out in the UK in locally tested birds and that the local bird watchers were doing the collection. It became evident that they did NOT do the collection properly or not at all. In fact their collections were deliberately skewed so that no birds would be destroyed. DEFRA blew that one. Within a year we had kids out of school and a town isolated for a mere 150 million Euro's while they waited for the H7 I believe to burn itself out. So the bird watchers gamed DEFRA and we had human casualties. It should have tipped them off when the testing revealed less non-H5N1 than background levels for all bird flu's.

Surely no one would ever do anything to harm another human being on this planet....Right?

So its time to ask some questions here. How does it get past Alaska then down about 1500 miles down into this one Canadian valley without ONE positive hit in either? How can the Ruskies, the Chinese, the Koreans (both), Japan, Indonesia, etc. all have pops and it gets to the International Date Line / Alaska and stops?

The answer is that it probably doesnt.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 02 Feb 2009 #permalink

I sure don't want to sound ungrateful for the high praise from the Reveres. It means a lot to me.

But I would like to come to Greg's defence and more generally, I guess, the defence of many of the remaining journalists in the shrinking ranks of paid journalism.

I have spent a lot of time writing about flu and so yes, I've got a grounding in the science and a pretty good Rolodex. But there is no such thing as a "flu reporter" -- no newsroom, including mine, has the resources to allow someone to focus only or even extensively on one disease these days. Today's newsrooms are lucky to have a dedicated health reporter. I think unless someone figures out a new business model for journalism and quickly, the ranks of health reporters will thin dramatically over the next 12-18 months.

The world we're facing -- the world we're in, actually -- is more like this one:

In the last few weeks my colleague Greg has written about (and this is not a complete list): British Columbia's budget deficit, a taping in Vancouver of the TV show "So You Think You Can Dance?", the death of a long-serving local politician, an extradition hearing, problems with the funding of construction of the athletes' village for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the fact that an oil company is offering a half-million reward for information leading to the arrest of someone who has been bombing an oil pipeline in northern British Columbia. Oh, and a number of stories about the latest avian flu outbreak in the B.C.'s Fraser Valley.

I'd bet real money that in addition to writing print versions of all those pieces he also cut audio clips for radio versions of those stories. He may also have had to do video versions of some of those stories. That is the life of a reporter these days.

If context is everything, that is the context.

By Helen Branswell (not verified) on 02 Feb 2009 #permalink

Ms. Branswell: I anticipated you might respond that way. Your defense of your colleague is appropriate and I appreciate the context you provide. Everything you say is justified. I purposely tried not to be too harsh on Mr. Joyce because I recognize the constraints. The dislocation in the news business at this moment is a fact of life. How it will wind up no one knows (if you check EM for Sunday afternoon you will see that predicting the future of the news is pretty difficult).

On this end, however, the objective is to ask for good about flu, standards you have established. From our point of view the issue is good reporting, as difficult as that might be under the circumstances. We ask the same for reporting about Iraq or the economy. We see a lot of bad reporting about each and we think we are justified in asking for better, but if we do it is fair to say what we mean by better.

So while we (obviously) have the highest regard for your abilities, they were only relevant as an example for what can be done. You have a gift for clear writing that is the envy of many of us. But it is the reporting that is at issue, here, and (as you have shown) it could have been better.

Judging from the article, Mr. Joyce has the makings of a good reporter about science issues. We want him to be as good as can be and this was a prod in that direction.

Late yesterday or early today, CFIA posted the AI subtype: H5N2. Preliminary results show it is a low pathogenicity strain.

[see ]

I do hope the National Lab will eventually explain why it took from January 23-24 to February 3 to identify the neuraminidase subtype from samples of non-decomposed carcasses or live birds. Whatever testing problems arose may have implications for quickly identifying the cause of future outbreaks.

By Path Forward (not verified) on 04 Feb 2009 #permalink

Does Mr. Lewis honestly mean to tell the world that of the half-million to a million birdies that the hatcheries and grow-out CAFOs bring to the Fraser Valley annually, every last one is quarantined in small batches for 14-30 days with filtered air and water systems until influenza PCR or Western blot comes back negative in triplicate?

Does he guarantee that all employees of those poultry farms have infinite sick days so they won't come to work and spread their germs around?

No, I don't think he means that. What I think he means is that employees are told to wear coveralls and gloves while handling the birds, and that there is a sticky mat in front of the exterior doors, and that there are brightly colored posters exhorting folks to wash their hands. They may even give out little sample-size bottles of alcohol rub, and send out reminders in the employee newsletter about flu shots. It is just possible that the cleaning staff mops the floor with Lysol on a weekly basis, at least in the office and hallway areas. And they've got big binders full of pieces of paper from their suppliers that certify the birdies are cootie-free. Not that they ever double-check the veracity of those pieces of paper and run any tests themselves, no, that might damage an important business relationship.

I bet that academic flu experts would be de-mystified right quick with just one surprise visit to the facilities on a regular work day. And instantly become vegetarians, but that's besides the point...

How does BF spread? How will it get into humans? I like S. Palin but we wonder how it all happens and moves around..... V I D E O ! Helen B. missed an op here.

Sarah-PLEASE GET A BETTER PR GUY/GIRL. The only thing you could be doing thats worse from a national press standard is to be doing the slaughter yourself. It aint Alaska anymore Toto.....

Although I do agree that you could be president Sarah... You are hard core to be in the middle of this one.…

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 06 Feb 2009 #permalink