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The South African Poultry Association (Sapa) has made an urgent appeal to all poultry producers and owners of so-called backyard poultry flocks to be vigilant in terms of the health of their flocks and implement the highest levels of biosecurity measures.

This comes after cases of the avian influenza strain had been confirmed on three commercial chicken farms in South Africa. Colin Steenhuizen, the interim general manager of the egg organisation of Sapa, says producers are urged to make sure there are no signs of the H5 avian influenza in birds. According to Steenhuizen, the virus spreads rapidly, usually resulting in mortalities not long after.

The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) has also urged producers to treat any increase in poultry mortalities and other bird species on their sites as a potential result of avian influenza until it is proven otherwise. All increases in mortality rates must therefore be reported immediately to responsible state veterinarians.

Steenhuizen says the spread of the virus must be avoided at all times to circumvent the devastating effect of the previous outbreak in South Africa in 2017. This virus originated in Standerton, Mpumalanga, resulting in a loss of approximately 20% of the country’s total layer flock.

This comes down to 4,7 million egg-laying hens. Almost 700 000 broilers were also lost to the virus at the time. “That outbreak was the opposite of what we are experiencing now. Birds were coming back into South Africa at the time.” In the most recent case, he says, migratory birds have been migrating from South Africa for warmer conditions in Europe.  

Current outbreaks

An outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) of the type H5N1 was confirmed on a commercial chicken farm in Ekurhuleni in the East Rand on 13 April this year. Approximately 270 000 birds were culled, and burials took place at a nearby dumping site under controlled conditions and strict supervision by state veterinary services.

Steenhuizen says, according to information at his disposal, approximately 240 000 layer hens were culled and tested. The spokesperson for DALRRD, Reggie Ngcobo, says this strain was confirmed to be a clade 2.3.4.4 virus, which groups closely with the virus strains currently circulating in wild birds in Europe. There is, however, no reason for concern as no human infection due to these circulating strains has been reported in Europe. This means that the zoonotic risk to people is low.

The H5 avian influenza strain was also discovered at a commercial broiler breeder farm in the JB Marks Local Municipality, North West. Control measures are being implemented. Steenhuizen says approximately 14 000 broiler breeders had to be slaughtered on the farm near Potchefstroom, while some of the mortalities will be used for sampling. He says at this stage, they are aware that it is H5 avian influenza, but they “do not know if it is HPAI H5 or the N-strain thereof”.   

DALRRD also confirmed the presence of H5 avian influenza on a commercial layer farm in Tshwane, Gauteng. According to Steenhuizen, the farm has been placed under quarantine, and workers are wearing protective gear.   

He says the producers involved do not take the decision to cull birds lightly.  They eventually made the responsible choice in the best interest of their neighbours and the industry in its entirety. The decision to cull cost the East Rand farmer in question R20 million in the process, adds Steenhuizen.

Biosecurity measures

DALRRD has urged poultry producers and those keeping birds for a hobby or for zoo purposes to implement biosecurity measures. These include:

  • Keeping control over the access of poultry houses by people and equipment.
  • Keeping birds away from areas frequented by wild birds. Steenhuizen says some producers operate without cages on free-range farms. These farmers will have to decide whether they should confine their birds to their sheds and not let them out into the so-called free-range area, where they are most likely to interact with wild birds of any sort. He adds that they are still waiting to see how far the virus has spread. However, at the moment, it is confined to the three areas in terms of virus load.
  • Not providing water or food in a manner that may attract wild birds. Rather feed your own birds under cover or inside a confined structure.
  • Maintaining proper disinfection of the property, poultry houses and equipment.
  • Avoiding the introduction of birds of unknown disease status into your flock(s).
  • Practising appropriate disposal of manure and dead birds.

Exports

Ngcobo says one of the three affected facilities is a registered compartment for export. However, in agreement with international trade recommendations, Namibia and Botswana have only banned poultry and raw poultry products from this affected compartment.

Both countries therefore still allow the export of poultry and raw poultry products from registered compartments within South Africa that comply with the monthly surveillance requirements and are on the notifiable avian influenza-free compartment list compiled by the Directorate of Animal Health.  Lesotho has, however, banned the importation of poultry and poultry products from Gauteng. – Christal-Lize Muller, AgriOrbit

For more information contact Colin Steenhuizen at 011 795 9920.