DQS

The impact of the Avian Influenza outbreak

In June, an outbreak of the highly pathogenic Avian influenza H5N8 was confirmed in SA, after it had already wreaked havoc in the poultry industry in Zimbabwe. It has also been reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to the FAO, South Africa has so far culled over 800 000 birds, while Zimbabwe puts the figure at approximately 215 000 birds. In these two countries, the disease has mainly been identified on large commercial farms, where systems to monitor outbreaks are readily in place compared to smallholder and backyard producers.

In June, an outbreak of the highly pathogenic Avian influenza H5N8 was confirmed in SA, after it had already wreaked havoc in the poultry industry in Zimbabwe. It has also been reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to the FAO, South Africa has so far culled over 800 000 birds, while Zimbabwe puts the figure at approximately 215 000 birds. In these two countries, the disease has mainly been identified on large commercial farms, where systems to monitor outbreaks are readily in place compared to smallholder and backyard producers.

The impact on the poultry industry, as well as the larger meat and food industry, is significant. There is no cure, so prevention is critical. Fortunately some measures are being implemented to minimise impacts on food and nutrition security, livelihoods and economic development.

The effects of an outbreak

The recent outbreaks of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), commonly referred to as the bird flu, are threatening the livelihood and food security status of millions of families in the region. If not tackled quickly, the HPAI outbreak impedes trade opportunities and will reverse the gains made in enhancing food and nutrition security.

FAO Subregional Coordinator for Southern Africa, David Phiri, emphasized the importance of poultry. “The poultry sector is vital in the region because poultry meat and eggs provide affordable sources of high-quality animal protein to millions of people in the region. Poultry production is also a major source of income for many, particularly rural women and youth.”

Commercial poultry production has grown significantly in the region in recent decades. In South Africa, one of the countries affected, the gross poultry income in 2016 was more than 3.5 billion USD.

The poultry industry in the SADC region, with a population of over 380 million birds (according to SADC Animal Health Yearbook 2011), is the largest contributor to the region’s agriculture sector. If not controlled, an HPAI outbreak would lead to huge economic losses to countries due to trade restrictions and culling of poultry among others.

Depopulation has already taken place in affected countries. South Africa has so far culled over 800 000 birds, while Zimbabwe puts the figure at approximately 215 000 birds. This is likely to have a knock on effect on the availability of table eggs and poultry meat for consumers in the region. South Africa alone is destroying 1 million eggs a day from the affected farms. Small-scale producers are also expected to face shortages of day old chicks in the market.

SADC representative, Bentry Chaura, said the bird flu had come at a time when the region was struggling to recover from the EL Niño induced humanitarian food shortages (2015 – 2016 season) further worsened by the emergence of other pests such as the fall armyworm which devastated crops this year.

“We are all witnesses of what animal diseases and pests, particularly transboundary animal diseases, can do to worsen the vulnerability of rural based communities. Those do not only affect lives in the community but also normally have a lasting impact on local, regional and international trade,” said Chaura.

Measures to minimise the impact

The specter of bird flu outbreaks has been looming across the region since the beginning of the year when Uganda reported an outbreak (January 2017). This prompted FAO to organize a regional meeting on transboundary animal diseases and plant pests in February 2017.

In May, a SADC Meeting of Ministers discussed the threat of the bird flu spreading southwards into the region. Member states were urged to develop the capacity for surveillance, detection, prevention, and rapid response to HPAI.

Countries are now expected to review recommendations from both meetings and agree on practical and time bound actions projected to bring a quick control of the disease. This is expected to minimize its impacts on food and nutrition security, livelihoods and economic development.

Since the first outbreak in the region in May 2017, the Member States have already implemented a series of actions including heightened surveillance, quarantine, importation bans of poultry and poultry products from affected countries and awareness raising. In addition, depopulation has already taken place in affected countries. South Africa has so far culled over 800 000 birds, while Zimbabwe puts the figure at approximately 215 000 birds.  

FAO is providing emergency response kits to affected countries – protective equipment, diagnostic reagents, etc. The Organization has also supported with the deployment of technical mission to countries where the disease is reported, as was recently seen in Zimbabwe.

What is Avian influenza H5N8?

The highly pathogenic Avian influenza H5N8 is a strain of avian influenza which is believed to be transmitted by wild migratory birds.

Avian influenza is a respiratory disease of birds caused by a virus which occurs in low pathogenic and high pathogenic varieties. Outbreaks of low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) are common around the world and are generally easily controlled, whereas the highly pathogenic versions of avian influenza (HPAI) are more serious due to the very high mortality rate in affected birds.

Avian influenza is primarily spread by direct contact between healthy and infected birds, or through indirect contact with contaminated equipment or other materials. The virus is present in the faeces of infected birds and in secretions from their noses, mouths, and eyes. The virus can spread into domestic flocks kept outdoors through faecal contamination from wild birds, whereas infection among indoor flocks is spread via airborne secretions and faeces. The spreading of the virus through faeces and secretions is often referred to as the “shedding” of the virus.

No cure: prevention is key

There is currently no cure for HPAI H5N8. Current practice in most regions of the world requires the culling of infected birds, not treatment, hence prevention is extremely important. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) recommends intensified surveillance and awareness raising by national authorities.

There is no benefit to be gained in attempting to control the virus in wild birds through culling or habitat destruction. Spraying of birds or the environment with disinfectant – for example, sodium hypochlorite or bleach – is considered potentially counter-productive, harmful to the environment and not effective from a disease control perspective.

There is also no justification for any pre-emptive culling of endangered species in zoological collections. Control measures for captive wild birds in places where the virus is detected should be based on strict movement control, isolation and, only when necessary, limited culling of affected birds.

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