South Africa could run the risk of losing 140 million chickens that face the H5N8 strain of bird flu should the virus cross the border with Zimbabwe where the country’s poultry have been affected since an outbreak there last week.
With Botswana having banned poultry imports from Zimbabwe, highly concerned suppliers in South Africa are now fearing their livestock is in jeopardy.
A high-level meeting is expected to take place tomorrow with all stakeholders, including government, according to the South African Poultry Association (Sapa).
Sapa has most of South Africa’s largest poultry producers as members.
They are anxious about the bird flu outbreak, says Sapa CEO Kevin Lovell – who also sits on the global expert panel on industry-driven avian influenza.
“We knew about this before the official announcement, and have been involved with various stakeholders. South Africa has never had a highly pathogenic avian influenza in chickens, and neither has Zimbabwe.”
The Herald reported that Zimbabwean egg and poultry producer Irvine’s was heavily affected by the outbreak as 7 000 of its birds were killed by the virus and a further 140 000 were euthanised for preventive measures.
Putting the number at 140 million chickens in South Africa that face potential euthanasia if “a disaster occurs”, Lovell added there are moreover a “good million backyard birds” being kept by people from all walks of life – some who see it as a hobby.
“And it affects everyone equally – it’s going to be a big issue in terms of businesses if it is spreads to South Africa.”
The risk, however, depends on how widely the virus is spread.
Currently, research is being conducted to identify the “family tree” of the virus and if it is being spread by wild birds moving over borders or by human activity, Lovell said.
“If it is from wild birds, the risk for South Africa is higher. But if it is by human activity or interaction, with people crossing borders, then it is easier to manage. We have to do the CSI stuff to find out the history of this.
“If it is brought in by wild birds it is difficult to stop their movement, but practical to manage.”
That practicality includes closing off the farms, euthanising the birds and halting any movement in a 10km radius. There will also be heightened testing.
Lovell added that should the virus enter South Africa, the longest-living birds, including breeding birds, were most likely to be affected first.
“It’s not here yet but industry is not taking this lightly – and we do have good systems in place.”
These systems, due to South Africa never experiencing such an avian pandemic, have however never been tested.
Lovell could not make a definitive statement on whether South Africa could end up importing chickens from the US as per the African Growth and Opportunity Act, should poultry be affected.
Some concerns related to this are that South Africa will become the dumping ground for unwanted US poultry.
The meeting tomorrow is expected to include stakeholders from national and provincial government, veterinarians, academics and representatives from the industry.
Discussions will focus on the early detection of where the virus comes from and prevention measures. Containment and management of the disease will also be looked at, he said.
The agriculture, forestry and fisheries department had not commented by the time of going to print.
Humans not immune
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), humans can be infected with the H5N8 virus, but the likelihood is low, “based on limited information obtained to date”.
“To date, no human cases of infection with influenza [H5N8] have been detected,” the WHO says.
“However, human cases of infection with related… [H5N6] viruses have been detected and reported in China.
“Though human infections with [H5] viruses are rare and generally occur in individuals exposed to sick or dead, infected birds, they can lead to severe illness or death in humans.”
Despite the risk of human infection being low, the WHO advises that you:
- Avoid contact with any birds, poultry or wild birds, or other animals that are sick or found dead, and report them to the relevant authorities.
- Wash hands properly with soap or a suitable disinfectant.
- Follow good food safety and good food hygiene practices.