No new cases of avian flu had been confirmed at previously uninfected poultry farms in the Western Cape since the end of October, the province’s MEC for economic opportunities, Alan Winde, said Tuesday.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) was first detected in the Western Cape in August. The total number of cases for the country now stands at 107, of which 75 are in the Western Cape.

In December there was a recurrence of avian flu at a previously infected farm, which is still under quarantine. Winde urged poultry owners to remain vigilant and to maintain strict biosecurity measures.

"The halting of new infections in our poultry industry is positive news, but we must remain extremely cautious due to infections among our wild bird population. Restocking of poultry farms continues in Gauteng, and our vets are working with local farmers to make sure their houses are clean so they can start the restocking process," Winde said.

Poultry farms can be declared officially free of HPAI 42 days after the first effective disinfection. Once the property is declared HPAI free, the quarantine can be lifted. To date, quarantine has been lifted on one commercial broiler breeder farm.

The culling of chickens due to the outbreak of avian flu has seen a rise in food prices related to poultry. Louw Pienaar, economist at the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries reported that the price of eggs in SA has risen 16.9% when comparing November 2016 to November 2017: "The biggest price shock has been in the Western Cape, where the price of 18 eggs increased from R38.42 to R42.66 between September and October of last year."

Winde said laboratory tests had confirmed the presence of the H5N8 virus in wild birds around Cape Town, namely swift terns in Durbanville, Seapoint, between Bloubergstrand and Melkbosstrand, Kenilworth and Stony Point, in the Western Cape. Other wild birds found to be infected in 2017 included guinea fowl, laughing doves, rock pigeon, pied crows, sacred ibis, blue crane, Egyptian geese, spotted eagle owl, peregrine falcons and house sparrows.

The sick terns showed signs of weakness and cloudy eyes and later developed head tremors, lack of balance, walking in circles and seizures, and later died.

Winde said the province’s veterinary services’ team had notified Cape Nature, BirdLife and local seabird rehabilitation centres of this latest outbreak of HPAI among wild birds, for further dissemination to relevant stakeholders.

"Members of the public are urged to inform their local state vet office or Cape Nature office if they discover groups of dead birds or sick birds. Members of the public should avoid handling sick birds, especially if they will be coming into contact with other birds or bird owners," Winde said.

There is currently no preventative vaccine or treatment for HPAI H5N8. Winde said veterinary services had advised that there was also no benefit to be gained in attempting to control the virus in wild birds through culling or habitat destruction.

The H5N8 strain of the virus has so far shown no sign of being infectious to people. Constant monitoring of exposed people in SA has supported this. However, people can spread the disease via their hands, clothes and vehicles.