On 22 June Chief Director of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), in the subdivision of Animal Production and Health, Dr Botlhe Michael Modisane, issued a report to the World Organisation of Animal Health stating that the outbreak of the H5N8 Avian influenza virus was confirmed after the Agricultural Research Council and Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute conducted tests. According to Eye Witness News, over 250 birds have been culled in Johannesburg since September. On 2 October, Economic Opportunities MEC Alan Winde, said that over two million birds had been killed or culled in the Western Cape as a result of the avian influenza.
Avian influenza, commonly referred to as bird flu, is a viral respiratory disease that affects birds, and it is believed to be transmitted by wild migratory birds. It is primarily spread through direct contact between infected and healthy birds or through contaminated equipment. There is currently no vaccine or treatment for the influenza and the common practice in most regions of the world is the culling of infected birds.
Exportation of poultry and poultry-related products has been suspended, save for poultry departments registered with DAFF, or where a country’s import permit contains clauses which can be signed by a certified veterinarian. DAFF Minister, Senzeni Zokwana, expressed at a media briefing that vaccinating poultry against influenza would not be in the best interests of the country or the producers. He asserted that vaccinations would impact South Africa’s export certification because “all of SA’s trading partners want products from a country that is free of avian influenza, and does not practise vaccination”. However, former CEO of the South African Poultry Association (SAPA), Kevin Lovell, speaking at the same briefing held the view that the ban imposed on South African poultry exports from neighbouring countries would unlikely have a long-term effect as “poultry exports make up only about 3.7% of all production in South Africa”.
The outbreaks have spread out over the Western Cape, Mpumalanga and Gauteng however, the Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) issued out a statement that shed light on the fact that “there have been no human cases of H5N8 in South Africa”. Furthermore, the World Health Organisation (WHO) asserted that humans are not immune to the H5N8 virus, but the likelihood of contracting the disease is low based on “limited information to date”.
A senior agricultural economist at the First National Bank, Paul Makube, expressed that “the flu will lead to job losses and put a serious dent in the price of chicken in the long-run”. He further said that “in the short-run local demand could be met by imports, but this would result in local producers losing market share”. An article released by News24 reported that Eggbert Eggs poultry farm in Gauteng has had a total loss of around R35 million, and has had to spend around R30 million to restore operations. This was a result of the influenza outbreak, as over 525 000 birds were culled, over 5.6 million eggs were thrown out, and 50 out of 70 staff members were retrenched.
Mr Aaron Mdlalose, a farmer from Heidelberg which is one of the regions most affected by bird flu, said, “It is very difficult for us [with] small farms, because we live in constant fear of whether our farms will be affected [or not]. There really is not much we can do in terms of prevention, we [must] always be on guard. This is bread and butter for me and my family, so I cannot afford to be out of business”. Mr Makube expressed that “the authorities cannot tell in advance where the next outbreak will occur [and] can only try to contain it once the disease has been reported, which [is] what makes it important for farmers to be given training on how to deal with the avian flu outbreak if detected on their farms”.
Photo: Anotidashe Mukombachoto