Half a million chickens to get the chop as SA grapples bird flu

500 000 chickens to be killed at two Mpumalanga farms. Picture: Michel Bega

Poultry association says the mass culling must go ahead to prevent the spread of the virus.

In the largest mass culling of animals in South African history, 500 000 chickens are to be euthanised to prevent the spread of bird flu.

The birds, which are both layers and broiler chickens, will be killed on two farms in Mpumalanga by a variety of methods, including gas.

This is the first record of the highly pathogenic H5N8 virus, which is spread by wild ducks, having affected chickens in the country, and the cull is unavoidable, according to the SA Poultry Association (Sapa).

The next largest chicken cull took place on a single farm in 1960, but was due to a different disease, Sapa director Kevin Lovell said.

While this will affect just 1% of the country’s egg supply, “it would be imprudent” not to take it seriously and immediately initiate culling to stop the disease from spreading, he added.

Today, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Senzeni Zokwana is expected to indicate government’s plan to deal with the outbreak.

“This would be the first mass culling. It is for us a major thing because we don’t normally cull that many birds on a farm.

“It is worrying. What we will be losing is 1% of the country’s eggs and that is not a massive impact … yet,” he said.

Authorities had immediately tried to mitigate the risk of the virus being spread in the country after a recent outbreak at Zimbabwe’s leading egg and poultry supplier Irvine’s, which resulted in 7 000 of its birds being killed by the virus and 140 000 being euthanised as a preventive measure.

It emerged this week that the first farm to be affected was Astral Foods – South Africa’s largest chicken supplier.

The second and latest farm confirmed with bird flu does not wish to divulge its name.

According to Lovell, the second farm is a commercial layer farm producing eggs for consumption and Astral was a broiler breeder with hens.

“A limited number are infected, but birds on the farms will have to be euthanised. Those who are sick must be euthanised much more quickly. It’s a viral disease – you can’t cure it.”

Euthanasia methods to be used would be determined by the kind of bird, how they live (on the floor or in cages), and the type of site they are on.

As with anywhere else in the world, the birds could meet their deaths by gassing in euthanasia carts or containers, cervical dislocation, or bled out.

Depending on the site, other methods included fire-controlled foam or halting ventilation.

The method involving the least discomfort and pain would be used and this would be determined on the site, Lovell said.

“If you do nothing they will suffer and die. And the longer they live, the more they will spread the disease.”

While there will be losses, there are ways for the broiler breeder to compensate, he said, adding that since most companies had suspended exports, he did not see any risk of a shortage of egg or chicken meat.

“But that can change quickly.”

Lovell also pointed out that responding to the outbreak was subject to the control of the state, which indicates what the industry should do.

The highly pathogenic H5N8 virus was more likely to infect longer-living birds, he added.

“If it continues, it is more likely to affect the egg layers, rather than the broiler industry.”

While no further spread of the virus had been reported, it was still “early days”, he said.

Lovell previously put the number of chickens in South Africa that faced potential euthanasia at 140 million.

He added that there are moreover a “good million backyard birds” being kept by people from all walks of life.

He said that wild ducks could not be followed, thus heightening the risk of the virus being spread. – yadhanaj@citizen.co.za



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