It spreads fast, is deadly to poultry and is potentially extremely costly, especially for an industry that is already reeling from the pressures of competing in global markets.

In the past, it has been found among ostriches in the Eastern Cape, but never in chickens in SA — until now. So, when South African Poultry Association CEO Kevin Lovell said in early June 2017 that an outbreak of the highly pathogenic H5N8 avian flu virus in Zimbabwe’s poultry industry was "very worrying", he was right.

The virus has since jumped the border and there have been 11 outbreaks in SA — the latest being reported on Sunday, when JSE-listed RCL Foods acknowledged the flu had hit its Viva farm in Gauteng.

Scott Pitman, MD of the company’s consumer division, says the outbreak occurred despite "obsessive and stringent" biosecurity measures.

The group is working with authorities to gather industry research on how best to contain it, he says.

"It should be noted that the virus is not known to affect humans," he says.

The spread of the virus in SA has conformed to type, moving rapidly across borders. The RCL outbreak came days after another JSE-listed chicken producer, Astral Foods, isolated a second outbreak of H5N8 at a facility near Standerton in Mpumalanga. It says this is unrelated to an outbreak in June at a farm in Villiers near the Vaal River.


The agriculture department has now confirmed 11 outbreaks in SA. Before the latest outbreak, the department had reported four incidents of the virus in commercial poultry, three in wild birds, one in captive hobby birds and two in backyard poultry.

Like the causes, the costs of the outbreaks are still far from being understood. Along with Zimbabwe and SA, avian flu has now been reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The outbreaks are believed to have come from wild, migrating birds from Europe, where avian flu has been rife recently.

Astral says the first outbreak in June cost it about R25m. Possible future costs cannot be determined as no one knows how far the virus will spread, the company says.

The department immediately suspended all trade in live poultry, meat and eggs from Zimbabwe after the outbreak there became known.

When the flu came to SA, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia halted all imports of poultry products from the country.

So far, SA has culled more than 800,000 birds, the FAO says, with Zimbabwe having culled another 215,000 chickens

Southern African nations have since responded in a co-ordinated way, urging countries to act quickly.

Authorities in Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) worry that bird flu is threatening the livelihood and food security of millions of families in the region.

This comes after recent drought conditions and fall armyworm devastated crops.

The poultry industry in the SADC region comprises more than 380-million birds and is the largest contributor to the agricultural sector. A widespread flu outbreak would lead to huge economic losses.

In SA, Lovell had earlier estimated that about 900,000 birds would be culled. With RCL’s tally, this is spot-on.

RCL says its Viva farm is a relatively small breeder facility with about 67,000 birds. All the chickens on this farm are being destroyed and the facility has been quarantined, it says.

The industry says the avian flu has been restricted to egg breeders and laying flocks and has not affected chicken meat value chains.

There are about 145-million commercial chickens of different types alive at any one time in SA, Lovell says.

The FAO says gross income from poultry in SA in 2016 was more than $3.5bn — the largest single contributor to the country’s agricultural sector.

So far, SA has culled more than 800,000 birds, the FAO says, with Zimbabwe having culled another 215,000 chickens. SA is destroying a million eggs a day from affected farms, according to the FAO.

However, Lovell says the figure is half this — at 500,000 eggs a day. Egg-laying chickens in the country number about 25-million, supplying 24-million eggs a day, he says.

Astral, RCL and a small poultry farmer are known to have been affected by the flu. Another two larger laying entities are also in the mix, but are not required to name themselves, Lovell says.

Chris Schutte. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA
Chris Schutte. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA

There appears to be disagreement on the way forward. Astral CEO Chris Schutte says he "trusts that the government and the relevant authorities will act swiftly" in approving the use of vaccinations against the virus.

"The … outbreak in SA is no longer just a concern for individual poultry farmers, but is of national interest," he says.

But Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Senzeni Zokwana believes vaccinating poultry is not in the best interests of SA or producers.

"Vaccination against highly pathogenic avian influenza is currently not allowed," Zokwana says.

"The most pertinent [reason] is that vaccinated birds can still become infected and transmit the disease to other birds, but they mask the symptoms.

"This can create an endemic situation, since outbreaks of the disease will not be detected easily," he says. "Surveillance to prove absence of the disease is also complicated in vaccinated birds as they test positive for antibodies to the disease.

"For the poultry keepers, strict biosecurity measures need to be observed to prevent introduction of the virus to the flock. For the public, emphasis should be on the reporting of any unusual poultry or wild bird deaths."


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