With the outbreak of the highly pathogenic H5N8 strain of bird flu now on four farms in South Africa, there may be catastrophic consequences for producers if the virus spreads further.
Two farms in Gauteng, one on a very large scale, reported positive for bird flu this week, pushing up the number of birds that will have been euthanased into the hundreds of thousands.
About 900 000 chickens have been killed in the past month on the latest two infected farms, in Ekurhuleni and Balfour, and the two already depopulated in Mpumalanga.
According to SA Poultry Association director Kevin Lovell, the affected producers will take about six months to get their farms back into shape, and the losses still need to be accounted for.
“From a producers’ point of view, it’s catastrophic,” he said.
“When [bird flu] comes on to a farm and if you don’t depopulate it, somewhere between 95% and 98% of birds are going to die from the disease. So if you have got it, it ruins you as a farmer.
“And once you have got it – and there are a few variables in this – your farm won’t produce for about six months. And there are things you have to do to bring it back into shape.”
Originating from Europe, the H5N8 strain spread into the country from wild ducks. This followed an outbreak in Zimbabwe, where it affected the country’s largest poultry producer, Irvine’s.
In South Africa, only egg-producing chickens are affected.
According to the World Health Organisation, this strain of bird flu does not pose much of a threat to human health, unlike the H1N1 virus.
Lovell added that while producers were doing their utmost to secure their farms, “you cannot stop wild birds from flying”.
“Biosecurity is like people living in their homes with burglar bars. And the same applies to the farmers. Everyone has their own method, but sometimes you can’t stop criminals wandering around where you live.
“But you can do things to try and keep the two separate and that’s the whole principle behind it.”
Of the four farms, three are large-scale operations and already had good systems in place, he said.
“But somehow, they still got through. There is a tracing process to find out how and it’s important for others to know. But all farmers have to be more concerned.”
From a consumer’s point of view, Lovell said at this stage there was no need to make alternative supply arrangements.
“And as far as I know, no one has tried to. Because it’s a virus and not a bacterium, when you cook the products it dies anyway.
“Even if for some reason you have eaten an infected egg, there is nothing that is left that is infected. Viruses are easier to get rid of by cooking than bacteria,” he said.
“So people don’t have to worry about their food. But it could become a worry if it spreads more widely in terms of supply.” – firstname.lastname@example.org