Flock shock: While SA’s chicken industry seems to have recovered from the outbreak of the H5N8 strain of the bird flu virus, farmers should not become complacent and should beef up preventative measures to ensure the disease does not wreak havoc again in winter. Picture: REUTERS
Flock shock: While SA’s chicken industry seems to have recovered from the outbreak of the H5N8 strain of the bird flu virus, farmers should not become complacent and should beef up preventative measures to ensure the disease does not wreak havoc again in winter. Picture: REUTERS

SA has turned the corner in fighting the deadly H5N8 strain of bird flu in commercial flocks, with outbreaks under control and the disease on the wane across the country.

While the poultry industry, health authorities and consumers sigh with relief, it is important to guard against complacency, as the disease has not yet been eradicated, particularly in wild birds and ostrich enterprises. Surveillance in this area is continuing, although the disease seems to be waning in wild birds.

To date, 30 outbreaks of the disease have been reported at commercial chicken and duck farms — 28 at commercial chicken enterprises and two at commercial duck farms.

Compared with other countries that experienced similar H5N8 outbreaks, SA has emerged relatively stronger, thanks to collaborative efforts aimed at preventing the disease from spreading.

In June, the outbreak of the H5N8 strain of avian influenza was detected in a commercial poultry facility in Mpumalanga. Further outbreaks occurred in other provinces, with recorded outbreaks peaking in September. The outbreaks affected commercial poultry, as well as hobbyist poultry, ducks and wild birds.

The disease spells almost certain death for a wide variety of birds, although people are not at risk of catching the virus. This particular strain has been circulating in Europe for several years and no human cases of infection have been recorded.

The World Health Organisation and the UN World Health Organisation for Animal Health have confirmed this.

Although SA had been free of the bird flu virus in poultry — the ostrich industry has had several outbreaks over the years — the recent incidences of the H5N8 strain are the first recorded outbreaks in the country.

SA is a member of the World Organisation for Animal Health and, as such, is required to submit reports on outbreaks of certain diseases.

The current highly pathogenic H5N8 bird flu strain outbreak falls within that category and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has submitted various reports on the wild and domestic bird populations that had been affected.

Of the 96 outbreaks reported since June 2017 in commercial, caged and wild birds in SA, 64 were in the Western Cape, 14 in Gauteng, 11 in Mpumalanga, two each in the Eastern Cape, Free State and North West, and a single case in KwaZulu-Natal.

More than 4-million birds have been culled.

Egg-price increase 

While the broiler population — the main source of chicken — has been affected, infected birds have been mostly layers (egg producers) and wild birds such as ducks and even pigeons.

Although the outbreak has cost the industry hundreds of millions of rand, there have also been other negative implications for small businesses, emerging farmers and consumers, who felt the effects too, with eggs increasing in price.

Although no immediate shortages of chicken have been evident, one large fast-food chain reported that wings have been in short supply.

A scientific analysis of the outbreak reveals several positive trends that point to the end of the spread of the disease. In much the same way as people tend to get sick with flu in winter, so too do birds tend to contract flu in colder months. As summer comes to the southern hemisphere, a fall-off in bird flu cases is to be expected and it is likely to wax and wane on a seasonal basis.

The last outbreak in North West was in early October, and the Western Cape agriculture department reported on November 8 that no further incidences had been recorded — a good sign from the country’s hardest-hit province.

Unlike the H5N1 bird flu strain that has infected people — it is only through extremely close contact with diseased birds that people got infected — it is important to note that humans are not affected by the H5N8 strain responsible for the most recent bird flu outbreak, and that all poultry products including chicken and eggs produced in SA, are safe to eat.

As any diseased poultry and eggs are destroyed at source, no meat or eggs from infected sites can enter the value chain.

In any case, practising basic kitchen hygiene and cooking your food properly will destroy this virus and many other food-borne pathogens anyway. As a rule of thumb, simply cook the pink out.

Local producers are, how-ever, warned against complacency, as once summer is over the possibility of disease spread through migrating wild birds is ever present. Therefore, the importance of biosecurity in preventing outbreaks or controlling the spread of disease cannot be overemphasised.

The outbreaks have necessitated a complete review by poultry producers of their existing biosecurity protocols and tightening these where gaps exist

Biosecurity practices include closing off farms and facilities against contact with wild birds (seen as carriers of the virus and a source of infection), implementing strict biosecurity protocols including the correct use and disinfecting of personal protective equipment, disinfecting equipment used on poultry farms and vehicles upon entry and exit, limiting visitors to essential visits only and covering food storage areas and securing them against rodents, pests and wild fowl.

In many cases, the outbreaks have necessitated a complete review by poultry producers of their existing biosecurity protocols and tightening these where gaps exist.

According to the UN World Organisation of Animal Health, a country, zone or compartment may be considered free from bird flu when it has been demonstrated that avian influenza virus infection in poultry has not been present in the country, zone or compartment for the past 12 months, based on surveillance in accordance with the organisation’s protocols.

In the fight against cheap, dumped imports, there is no doubt that the bird flu outbreaks and mass culling have set the industry back a little in terms of production, and import volumes have opportunistically grown during the outbreak period.

If these outbreaks have taught us anything, they have shown that SA is not immune to this disease, which has wreaked havoc across the world.

The challenge facing us now is to prepare for the future, to rebuild our national flock and critically examine our infrastructure, systems and procedures relating to disease prevention and control.

• Majokweni is director of the South African Poultry Association’s poultry-disease management agency.

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