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Eight skunks found dead with avian flu in Vancouver and Richmond



Eight skunks found dead in Richmond and Vancouver in late February have tested positive for avian influenza, a highly virulent disease responsible for decimating flocks of domestic poultry.

B.C.’s chief veterinarian Theresa Burns said the skunks were initially turned over to B.C.’s Animal Health Centre under suspicions they had been poisoned in residential areas of the cities. But testing later revealed they were infected with the same strain of the H1N1 bird flu virus that has swept into farms in a series of outbreaks across the world.

Burns said this is the first time such a large cluster of H5N1-infected mammals have been found in a single geographic area.

“We’re looking for signs of mammalian adaptation,” said Burns. “That will help us determine: is there increased human health risk?”


The skunks likely became infected after eating dead wild birds carrying the virus, said Burns. She repeated the Ministry of Agriculture and Food message, released in a press release Monday, that avian flu continues to pose a “low risk to human health.”

The eight skunks add to millions of wild and domestic animals that have been infected with bird flu since an international series emerged early in 2022. Since then, outbreaks have swept North America, Europe and Asia over the past year.

Half of the nearly 7.2 million domestic birds impacted by avian flu across Canada since 2022 have been identified in B.C., according to the Canadian Food and Inspection Agency (CFIA). The spread of highly-pathogenic strains had led to massive culls in farms across Canada and elsewhere. CFIA says there is no evidence to suggest eating cooked poultry or eggs could transmit one of the highly virulent strains of bird flu to humans.

Keep pets away amid ongoing investigation

A ministry lab in Abbotsford, B.C., has done post-mortem inspections on two of eight skunks so far. Samples from that lab were sent to the BC Centre for Disease Control for genomic testing, which confirmed the strain infecting the skunks was the same one running through poultry farms.

Burns said they are also still trying to track down exactly where the skunks were found, something that’s expected to take two weeks. In the meantime, the Ministry of Forests is working with cities in the region to look for increased reporting of dead skunks, and Burns says her team has notified wildlife rehabilitation centres to remain alert.

The ministry is warning pet owners to keep away from dead animals. Anyone finding a dead animal should leave it where it is and contact the B.C. Wildlife Health Program at 250-751-7246.

Dead skunks part of international series of outbreaks

Avian flu occurs naturally in wild birds in the northern hemisphere. The virus can jump from wild birds into poultry flocks through shared outdoor ponds or open buildings.

Scientists have isolated variants of the influenza virus in more than 100 wild bird species worldwide, from waterfowl like geese, swans, ducks and gulls to shoreline species like sandpipers, plovers and storks, said Ronald Ydenberg, a professor of behavioural ecology and director of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Wildlife Ecology.

“There is likely always some spillover to other species. So by itself, I wouldn’t be awfully alarmed,” Ydenberg said. “But it is a signal that whatever is out there at the moment is jumping into some other species.”

The latest series of outbreaks has seen the virus jump from birds into mammals. Across the United States, H1N1 has been isolated in foxes, bears, wild cats, coyotes, seals, raccoons and opossums. Infected skunks have been found in highest concentrations across the U.S. Pacific Northwest, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative has tracked nearly 1,800 confirmed or suspected positive cases of avian influenza in wild animals since late 2021. Those have mostly come back from a variety of bird species but have also included seals, foxes, bears and skunks.

“This is a little bit different,” said Burns of the skunks found in Vancouver and Richmond, “because we’ve seen multiple skunks that are in a fairly close urban region as opposed to sort of these isolated cases in rural areas.”

Vigilance suggested amid ‘low risk’ of human infection

At a global level, the spillover of bird flu into mammals “needs to be monitored closely,” said World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a Feb. 8 press conference.

Since H5N1 first emerged in 1996, UN health agency’s chief said there has been “rare and non-sustained” transmission of the virus into and between humans.

“But we cannot assume that we remain the case and we must prepare for any change in the status quo,” he added.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, human infection from bird flu can happen when the virus is inhaled or gets into a person’s eyes, nose or mouth.

Since 2020, a handful of human infections have been isolated, often after people had sustained contact with infected poultry. In November 2022, an adult in China developed an H5N1 infection and later died. And in a highly publicized recent case, a young girl in Cambodia did not survive after she was infected with a similar highly virulent strain of bird flu.

But a wider spillover into humans is less likely, said SFU’s Ydenberg, who strongly suspects such an event would almost certainly occur a place like Southeast Asia, where people live in closer contact to domestic birds.

“The notable thing is that there are so few human deaths reported — at this point,” he said.


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High-risk places affected by respiratory outbreaks



A respiratory virus outbreak has been declared at Southbridge Lakehead long-term care home.

The outbreak is facility-wide at the Vickers Street home. Restrictions are in place on admissions, transfers, discharges, social activities and visitation until further notice.

There are now four active respiratory outbreaks in high-risk settings in the Thunder Bay district, including at Hogarth Riverview Manor on the first floor and 2 North and on Plaza 1 at Pioneer Ridge.

A facility-wide COVID-19 outbreak is also ongoing at the Manitouwadge Hospital.


There are no active influenza outbreaks in the district.

The Thunder Bay District Health Unit reports that emergency department visits because of respiratory-related complaints have decreased and are at seasonal levels in its catchment area and the influenza A surge overall has subsided with the peak in cases and hospitalizations having taken place in November of 2022.

COVID-19 does continue to circulate with 104 new lab-confirmed cases in the last seven days.

Hospitalization numbers are stable with 23 people in the hospital with COVID in the district, including three in intensive care units.

The health unit continues to stress the importance of precautions like getting the annual flu vaccine and latest COVID booster as well as wearing a face mask, particularly indoors and crowded places. Also, stay home when sick.



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WHO advisers to consider whether obesity medication should be added to Essential Medicines List



Advisers to the World Health Organization will consider next month whether to add liraglutide, the active ingredient in certain diabetes and obesity medications, to its list of essential medicines.

The list, which is updated every two years, includes medicines “that satisfy the priority health needs of the population,” WHO says. “They are intended to be available within the context of function health systems at all times, in adequate amounts in the appropriate dosage forms, of assured quality and at prices that individuals and the community can afford.”

As the market for new weight loss drugs soars, people with diabetes pay the price


The list is “a guide for the development and updating of national and institutional essential medicine lists to support the procurement and supply of medicines in the public sector, medicines reimbursement schemes, medicine donations, and local medicine production.”

The WHO Expert Committee on the Selection and Use of Essential Medicines is scheduled to meet April 24-28 to discuss revisions and updates involving dozens of medications. The request to add GLP-1 receptor agonists such as liraglutide came from four researchers at US institutions including Yale University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

These drugs mimic the effects of an appetite-regulating hormone, GLP-1, and stimulate the release of insulin. This helps lower blood sugar and slows the passage of food through the gut. Liraglutide was developed to treat diabetes but approved in the US as a weight-loss treatment in 2014; its more potent cousin, semaglutide, has been approved for diabetes since 2017 and as an obesity treatment in 2021.

Ozempic prescriptions can be easy to get online. Its popularity for weight loss is hurting those who need it most


The latter use has become well-known thanks to promotions from celebrities and on social media. It’s sold under the name Ozempic for diabetes and Wegovy for weight loss. Studies suggest that semaglutide may help people lose an average of 10% to 15% of their starting weight – significantly more than with other medications. But because of this high demand, some versions of the medication have been in shortage in the US since the middle of last year.

The US patent on liraglutide is set to expire this year, and drugmaker Novo Nordisk says generic versions could be available in June 2024.

The company has not been involved in the application to WHO, it said in a statement, but “we welcome the WHO review and look forward to the readout and decision.”

“At present, there are no medications included in the [Essential Medicines List] that specifically target weight loss for the global burden of obesity,” the researchers wrote in their request to WHO. “At this time, the EML includes mineral supplements for nutritional deficiencies yet it is also described that most of the population live in ‘countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.’ “

WHO’s advisers will make recommendations on which drugs should be included in this year’s list, expected to come in September.

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“This particular drug has a certain history, but the use of it probably has not been long enough to be able to see it on the Essential Medicines List,” Dr. Francesco Blanca, WHO director for nutrition and food safety, said at a briefing Wednesday. “There’s also issues related to the cost of the treatment. At the same time, WHO is looking at the use of drugs to reduce weight excess in the context of a systematic review for guidelines for children and adolescents. So we believe that it is a work in progress, but we’ll see what the Essential Medicines List committee is going to conclude.”


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Some pediatric surgeries may be postponed as pediatric ICU faces strain: Shared Health



Re-emerging levels of respiratory illness have caused increased patient numbers at the HSC Children’s pediatric intensive care unit over the last week, and some non-urgent procedures may be postponed, Shared Health says.

On Thursday morning, there were 17 pediatric patients in the intensive care unit, and a considerable number of which were already experiencing health issues that were aggravated by respiratory illness. The unit’s normal baseline is nine, Shared Health said in a Thursday media release.

The release said patient volumes at the children’s emergency department are stable but more children with flu-like symptoms have been recorded coming in over the last two weeks, going from a low of 22 in mid-March to 47 on Wednesday.

A variety of respiratory illnesses are spreading through the community and have contributed to the increased level of patients in the pediatric intensive care unit, according to Shared Health.


Meanwhile, the number of patients in the neonatal intensive care unit was at 51 on Thursday morning, which is slightly above the unit’s normal baseline capacity of 50.

Ten staff are being temporarily reassigned to the pediatric intensive care unit to deal with the increased level of patients, the release said.

Some staff are being pulled from the pediatric surgical and recovery units, which means non-urgent procedures may be postponed due to the reassignments, Shared Health said.

Families of patients impacted by the postponements will be contacted, they said, and all urgent and life-threatening surgeries will go unhindered.

Families can protect their children from respiratory illnesses by limiting their contact with people exhibiting cold-like symptoms, washing their hands frequently and staying up to date on vaccinations, Shared Health said.

Patient volumes increased last month

While overall wait times at emergency and urgent care centres were stable in February, Shared Health said daily patient volumes in the province went up.

The daily average of patients seeking care was 750 last month, which is an increase from 730.4 in January, according to a separate Thursday news release.

The average length of stay for patients in emergency or urgent care units to be transferred to an inpatient unit went down to 21.77 hours last month, which is an improvement from 22.5 hours in January, the release said.

The overall number of people who left without being seen went down last month, from 13 per cent in January to 12.1 per cent in February, according to Shared Health. It also decreased at the HSC emergency department, from 25 per cent in January to 23.4 per cent last month.

Shared Health is reminding Manitobans to continue to call 911 in case of an emergency, and said the sickest and most injured patients will remain their priority.



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