live chickens in South Africa
The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (Daff) yesterday placed a general ban on the sale of live chicken throughout the country as the contagious H5N8 avian flu spreads to more provinces.

The department moved to control further outbreaks as Zimbabwe also banned imports from South Africa. Yesterday it confirmed cases of avian flu in Mpumalanga and Free State provinces. Daff also reported the outbreak of H5N8 bird flu on a commercial broiler breeder farm in Mpumalanga and said nearly 5000 birds had died and the rest were culled.

“The affected farm has been quarantined and culling of the affected animals has been completed. The department is conducting forward and backward tracing of movement of all poultry in and out of the farm in order to establish the source of the influenza. The department has established a 30km control zone in Mpumalanga and Free State,” Daff said.

Country Bird chief executive Marthinus Stander said they had not been affected by the disease as yet, but was worried about the impact it could have on its overall operations. He said the company had taken all necessary measures to prevent any damage that may occur.

“It is indeed a serious matter, but if the outbreak is successfully contained to the current magnitude, the damage will not be material to the industry,” said Stander. “We stepped up bio-security at all our chicken and feed operations; increased surveillance methods such as testing our own chickens, rural poultry as well as wild birds and restricting movement of personnel between farms.”

The outbreak comes as the poultry industry tries to recover from the worst drought in more than 30 years that has almost brought it to its knees in 2016.

“The first outbreak of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N8 has been confirmed in the Villiers area in the Free State,” Agri SA said yesterday. “Farmers and poultry producers should step up their bio-security measures in order to prevent potential virus introduction from wild birds or their faeces. It is important to keep poultry and other animals away from wild birds and their sub-products or droppings through screens, fencing or nets. Commercial poultry operations and backyard poultry owners should avoid the introduction of pathogens through contaminated clothes, footwear, vehicles or equipment used in waterfowl hunting.” Agri SA said it was worried because there was 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,” said Agri SA. According to the World Health Organisation, human infection with the H5N8 virus cannot be excluded, although the likelihood is low, based on the limited information obtained to date.

Avian influenza is a notifiable disease in terms of the Animal Disease Act, 35 of 1984. The H5N8 strain of avian influenza, which is believed to be transmitted by wild migratory birds, has already wreaked havoc in the poultry industry in Zimbabwe where hundreds of thousands of commercial birds have already had to be culled.

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) yesterday said it would write to the chairperson of the portfolio committee on agriculture, forestry and fisheries, Machwene Semenya, to request Minister Senzeni Zokwana to brief parliament on plans to contain the bird flu.

DA spokesperson Annette Steyn said South Africa had never had an outbreak of bird flu before. “Currently, roughly 19000 chickens are scheduled to be culled after contracting the highly contagious virus while 5000 have already died,” said Steyn.

She added that given the possible major implications for the poultry industry, including the ostrich industry, parliament must be briefed urgently on what plans the department has in place to contain the outbreak as well as just how far the flu has spread.

“Farmers stand to lose their poultry and this will negatively affect the country’s chicken exports, the last thing the South African agricultural sector needs is to have its exports seen as undesirable and, worst of all, banned,” Steyn said.