Researchers Pool Expertise to get the Poop on Avian Influenza

It’s well known that wild birds are a source of avian influenza (AI) — a serious threat to the poultry industry.

However, traditional methods of wild bird surveillance had its limitations since it was often difficult to know if researchers were gathering a representative sample.

Dr. Catherine Soos swabbing  a duck for avian influenza.

“Who knows how many mallards are out there, I don’t know. So how do we know that we are doing effective surveillance?” says Dr. Chelsea Himsworth, a veterinary pathologist and director of CWHC British Columbia region.

Capturing and sampling wild birds didn’t yield the desired early warning and even had questionable value for understanding the dynamics of AI, she explains.

Dr. Catherine Soos releasing a duck after avian influenza testing.

The solution came after members of the CWHC team began collaborating with colleagues in environmental biology and advanced genomics – and taking a fresh approach to the problem.

The idea was “rather than going and swabbing a hundred birds, [how about] just going to the place where those 100 birds defecate and taking one sample?” Himsworth explains.

AI is shed in bird feces. And, since “wetlands are mother nature’s outhouse,” these regions were deemed the best place to collect feces — acting as potential sentinels for the avian disease.

That approach presents its own challenges as the samples are a difficult “witch’s brew” to work with, Himsworth explains. Waterfowl feces are mixed in with feces from other animals, plants and other organisms, making the task like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

“But when we bring all these different professionals to the table who all had different skills, we actually managed to find that needle using novel technology,” Himsworth says.

The team looked for DNA and used computer power to detect pathogens rather than traditional lab methodology. Their efforts proved to be successful, and the team’s findings will soon be published in a research journal.

For Himsworth, this project aptly demonstrated what she calls the “transdisciplinary” nature of CWHC, where people from varying professional backgrounds not only listen to each other but work in a cohesive team.

“This is a great example of the value of the CWHC in terms of coming up with new ideas and new methodologies — and kind of pushing the boundaries of science forward,” says Himsworth.

B.C.: Bovine tuberculosis surveillance in wild cervids (deer, elk and moose)

Himsworth says bovine tuberculosis can be transmitted from wildlife to farm animals, and there have been cases of the disease detected in the B.C. Interior “that seemed to come out of nowhere.”

Dr. Helen Schwantje, wildlife veterinarian for B.C. and an associate of the CWHC, has teamed up with the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, monitoring wildlife surrounding infected cattle herds. The researchers hope to confirm if deer and other cervids are indeed the source of bovine tuberculosis, and to determine how exactly the disease is being transmitted to cattle in the province.

Article produced by Kathy Fitzpatrick

Kathy Fitzpatrick is a freelance journalist in Saskatoon. Born in Manitoba, she has spent close to four decades working in media — including radio, television, print and digital.

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