Agriculture Forestries and Fisheries Minister Senzeni Zokwana briefs media on the avian influenza outbreak in South Africa. Picture: Jonisayi Maromo/ANA

Pretoria - In response to outbreaks avian influenza at farms in Mpumalanga, Agriculture Forestries and Fisheries Minister Senzeni Zokwana on Thursday said hundreds of thousands of chickens had now been culled to avoid the spread of the contagious disease.  

"Our team of veterinarians has swiftly responded to this threat. We have placed the affected farms under quarantine and the affected birds have been euthanised and the eggs destroyed. Approximately 260 000 birds have been culled," Zokwana said as he addressed media in Pretoria.  

He said Section 19 of the Animal Disease Act gave the director for animal health the legal mandate to compensate for any animals or birds killed by the State pursuant to any disease control measure.

Zokwana said experts within his department believed a ban on the sale of live chickens would be the best measure to control the spread. "In order to contain the disease, our team called for the ban on the sale of live chickens to manage the further spread. This triggered a nationwide concern since a number of livelihoods had been affected. However, this measure was imposed in the interest of the country and the poultry producers at large, and I can assure you that it was not taken lightly," said Zokwana.  

He said buyers and sellers of "more than five chickens for any other purpose other than direct slaughter at a registered abattoir" would now be subjected to conditions including registering with the independent Poultry Disease Management Agency (PDMA). 

Only registered sellers and buyers were allowed to trade and it was the responsibility of both sellers and the buyers to ensure that the party they were trading with was registered, farmers may only sell live chickens certified as healthy by a veterinarian or animal health technician.  

Traders were now required to only sell healthy chickens and must keep records as prescribed. Sellers and buyers registering with the PDMA were required to sign an undertaking to adhere to the stipulated control measures. 

"These conditions apply to sellers of live broiler chickens, live spent layer hens, live spent broiler birds, points of lay pullets and any chickens that may fall into these categories. These conditions apply to any buyers and traders who buy more than five live chickens that fall into the above categories," said Zokwana.  

"All stakeholders are implored to comply with the registration and other requirements that are designed to allow the trade of live chickens to continue without compromising animal health. 

Depending on the level of compliance that is achieved with these conditions, the director for animal health will review future requirements for blanket bans."  

In May, the agriculture department alerted South African farmers about the imminent threat of Avian Influenza when neighbouring Zimbabwe reported its first case. The disease, which at the time had been reported in 14 countries, had been confirmed in Zimbabwe, making it the third country in Africa to be affected.  

Avian influenza is a virus, and is classified as either highly pathogenic or low pathogenic by the World Organisation for Animal Health. 

The type that has been reported in this region is highly pathogenic and is extremely contagious. In South Africa, two cases - one in a broiler breeder farm in Villiers and another in an egg laying farm in Standerton - were reported since June 22. 

Zokwana said except for these cases in Mpumalanga, there has been no other cases reported in Free State or any other South African province. 

The minister emphasised that the virus being fought against did not affect human beings "and has been confirmed by the World Health Organisation and the World Organisation for Animal Health". 

"The meat on the shelves is safe to eat as it has gone through a process of meat inspection and certified for for human consumption," said Zokwana.