African penguins at Boulders in Cape Tow. File picture: SUNDAY TIMES
African penguins at Boulders in Cape Tow. File picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Parliament’s portfolio committee on agriculture has expressed concern about the spread of H5N8 avian flu to African penguins along the coast of the Western Cape, particularly Boulders Beach.

"This concerns the committee as the penguins are an endangered species," committee chairperson Rosina Semenya said.

"The committee further awaits a response from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries following a statement by an avian veterinarian alleging that avian flu and listeriosis may be attributed to the low quality of grain that is being fed to birds, which affects their immune system."

The committee said the vaccination of wild birds or the containment of the environment in which they live or breed may not necessarily be the answer. However, Semenya said that the department must continue to monitor bird populations, and the testing of sick birds and carcasses must be done regularly as bird colonies were at risk.

"The public are warned that cross contamination occurs when people are not in the habit of disinfecting or washing their hands after touching raw meat, and they are urged not to touch dead birds. The public must also be vigilant and report the deaths of groups of wild birds to the nearest state veterinarian."

In a statement earlier, the Department of Environmental Affairs said that together with all relevant management authorities, it was managing seabird colonies. It said stringent biosecurity measures were being implemented at the various seabird rehabilitation centres, captive institutions and known breeding localities to address the spread of the H5N8 strain of the avian flu that is affecting several seabird species.

"In an effort to manage the spread of avian influenza, a decision was taken to halt all the research activities involving the handling of seabirds. This highly pathogenic H5N8 avian influenza is the same strain reported in the poultry industry in 2017," the department said.

"This strain of bird flu has not been found to affect people, as was confirmed through testing of people in contact with infected chickens in SA in 2017. However, bird flu viruses can, in rare cases, cause infections in humans. Thus, strict biosecurity measures should be enforced and precautions should be taken when handling affected seabirds."