Picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi/INLSA

JOHANNESBURG - The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) said on Monday that it was discussing a highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) vaccination strategy with various stakeholders, including the commercial poultry industry. 

DAFF spokesperson Makenosi Maroo said the department and the poultry industry were investigating how a vaccination strategy could be incorporated as a control measure for specific groups of birds on farms. 

“These farms will be able to implement the necessary safety measures and testing schedule. Inputs of vaccine manufacturers and international experts have been taken into account,” said Maroo.

The department said this measure might decrease the effects of avian flu outbreak in the short term, but might have a negative effect on trade.

“An exit strategy to withdraw vaccination once the threat of HPAI is passed is also under discussion,” she said.

 Maroo said that to date, 92 locations across the seven out of South Africa’s nine provinces had been identified to have tested positive for the bird flu. “Mpumalanga province has reported a total of 11 outbreaks, Gauteng 13, North West 2, Free State two, Kwa-Zulu Natal one; Eastern Cape two and 61 in the Western Cape,” she said.

The affected birds included commercial poultry, backyard poultry, ostriches, hobby birds and wild birds.

The South African Poultry Association reported that more than 4 million chickens have been, or are in the process of being, culled. 

This was said to include almost 4 million layers, 360 000 broiler breeders and just more than 31 000 layer breeders. 

Specialist poultry veterinarian Dr Roger Horner said he was of the view that the country should try managing the strain without vaccination.

“Vaccination is complicated because it is not as simple as putting a vaccine into the affected bird. Avian flu is very unstable, therefore, it should be ensured that the used vaccine is an exact match to the strain,” said Horner.

“Avian flu is a moving target because it keeps on changing. The vaccine developed now might not necessarily match the strain six months later.”

Horner agreed that vaccinating the birds would have a negative impact on trade because it would mean that the farmers were failing to contain the strain and had resorted to vaccination.

He said the move should be carefully discussed.

Horner said the vaccination would probably have to be imported from vaccine producers abroad provided that they had the matching vaccine. 

“Should we not have to exact match, it could take two to three years to develop one,” he said.

DAFF said that a system was introduced to allow for movement of healthy live chickens for purposes other than for slaughter.

“Provincial Veterinary Services issued health attestations for small scale farmers and distributors of live chickens and the Poultry Disease Management Agency (PDMA) was authorised by DAFF to register and keep records of all parties selling and buying live chickens.  This has so far been effective to prevent the spread of the disease to small scale farmers and backyard breeders on a large scale,” said Maroo.