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After months of numerous countries, including North America, the European Union, the United Kingdom and South America, grappling with highly pathogenic avian influenza (bird flu) outbreaks, South Africa reported its first cases in commercial poultry in April this year. These initial incidents were recorded in the Western Cape in commercial layers (table egg production), spreading to KwaZulu-Natal, then Mpumalanga and now Gauteng and Limpopo.
The poultry sector is feeling the impact of the disease across different segments, from commercial layers to broiler breeders. What worries the South African poultry sector is the prevalence of two different strains of bird flu: H5N1, which is common in many countries around the world, and H7N6, which is a new strain that emerged in South Africa.
The H7N6 strain has been detected in some of the outbreaks in Mpumalanga and Gauteng, starting from the Delmas region in early June 2023. Both the commercial layer and broiler sectors have suffered significant losses from the recent outbreaks. The number of cases exceeds those of any year since 2017, when bird flu first appeared in commercial poultry. The current control measures for the disease involve culling and safe disposal of infected livestock, which entails a huge financial cost for the local poultry industry.
Some countries have started vaccination trials, hoping that vaccination will play an important role in controlling the disease. For example, France has begun vaccinating its commercial flocks of ducks. The domestic poultry industry is currently discussing with the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) the possibility of using vaccines to fight against the disease. Vaccines against the H5 and H7 strains of bird flu would add an important tool to the local industry’s biosecurity programmes aimed at managing and controlling the disease, as they do for many other avian diseases that the global poultry industry vaccinates for.
The financial impact of culling on producers is not sustainable, as South African producers do not receive compensation from the government. Many producers in other countries receive governmental assistance in managing and controlling outbreaks, including financial compensation for their losses. South African producers are very concerned about the latest outbreaks. If the trend continues at the current pace, this could lead to shortages in the supply chain. – Press release, South African Poultry Association