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Bird flu outbreak puts poultry industry in jeopardy

South Africa’s poultry industry is set to take a further knock as a pathogenic bird-flu strain was detected on two more farms this week. The outbreak of the H5 strain of the virus was first identified at a commercial layer chicken farm on the East Rand last week, and led to three neighbouring countries suspending imports.   

On Wednesday last week, Botswana announced that it had banned imports of domesticated and wild birds from South Africa with immediate effect. Namibia announced its ban last Thursday, followed by Mozambique the next day. 

Unlike the other two countries, Namibia only suspended imports from Johannesburg’s East Rand area.  

The Botswana government said in a statement  that, “all veterinary import permits issued in respect of the items listed have been cancelled with immediate effect”.

In 2020, according to the South African Poultry Association, South Africa exported 10 608 tons of eggs to Mozambique along with 12 835 tons of broiler chickens. Namibia imported 23 tons of eggs and 8 015 tonnes of broiler meat, while Botswana imported 394 fertile hatchery eggs and 2 304 broilers. 

Colin Steenhuisen, the spokesperson for the poultry association, said the Ekurhuleni farmer on whose farm the outbreak started, had been dealt a heavy blow. The farmer had to kill 240 000 chickens and had lost about R260 000 a day in revenue.  

Steenhuisen said that although there was a government compensation mechanism in place for farmers affected by the outbreak, it normally took years before the compensation was paid out. 

It has been alleged that some farmers who were affected by the 2017 bird flu outbreak are yet to receive compensation.  

According to Steenhuisen: “This is a very bad loss for the farmer, he needs two million rands to recover what he has lost already. He sacrificed his chickens for the sake of the local poultry industry to avoid the spread of this flu. We are also investigating two other reported outbreaks in Johannesburg again and one in North West. I don’t have the full details for now. This is concerning and bad for all farmers.

“For now we are urging all farmers to stay on high alert, restrict movement of people and cars in and out of their chicken farms. Employees must also shower in the mornings when they arrive and wear fresh clothes, as this flu quickly spreads,” Steenhuisen said.

He said the change of season could be behind the outbreak, as wild birds were migrating for winter.  

“When they rest in farms or in the wild in their journey, the wild birds might defecate in water and likely infect the local birds.”

In 2017, the outbreak of the highly infectious H5N8 strain led to many South African farmers losing thousands of their chickens. The Ekurhuleni farmer also suffered losses during that outbreak, which resulted in a shortage of eggs countrywide, because millions of chickens had to be killed. 

Signs of infection in chickens include respiratory problems such as coughing and sneezing, a drop in egg production, nervous signs, diarrhoea and an increase in chicken deaths.

Human infections of avian influenza are uncommon, according to a National Institute for Communicable Diseases fact sheet issued in 2017.

The director of communications at Gauteng’s agriculture department, Nozipho Hlabangana, said the Ekurhuleni farm had been quarantined and vaccinations had been done. 

“There is no movement in and out of the farm. It has been sanitised and placed under quarantine. We also understand that this bird flu is airborne, meaning it could be in other parts of Gauteng by now, but we have not received any official confirmation yet. We only know of the case reported in this commercial farm. The farm is a layer chicken farm, so all the chicken affected are those meant for eggs and not commercial meat chicken,” said Hlabangana.

She said veterinarians were still studying the extent of the disease and would provide additional comment at a later stage. 

Veterinary surgeon and head of veterinary services at the Western Cape department of agriculture, Dr Gininda Msiza, said: “Although we are still studying the source of this flu, scientifically it has been proven that it comes from water birds like ducks, especially when they migrate.

“Once these come into contact with normal [domestic] birds or chicken, that is how it spreads, and the fact that this flu is airborne makes it more likely for it to spread. Fortunately, there have been no cases in the Western Cape; we are vigilant and are monitoring it.” 

Chris Gilili  is an Adamela Trust climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.

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Chris Gilili
Chris Gilili is a climate and environmental journalist at the Mail & Guardian’s environmental unit, covering socioeconomic issues and general news. Previously, he was a fellow at amaBhungane, the centre for investigative journalism.

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