HPAI crisis: New South African strain of avian flu kills fast

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

South Africa’s chicken industry has lost over 3,787 million birds since the beginning of June due to a deadly new strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) with millions more jeopardised. This came to light during a Plaas TV-interview with Dr Shahn Bisschop who is the CEO of Avimune.

“The new H7N6 strain of the virus is far more contagious than the H5N1 strain we have seen causing problems across the world recently,” Bisschop said. He added that the death toll was continually rising.

While consumers have already noted a decline in egg availability, Bisschop said poultry meat consumers will only start seeing the impact of this new strain within four to six weeks.

Commercial impact of H5N1 strain of HPAI per province: 29 May 2023 to 13 September 2023 (Source: SAPA)

Production typeCulledAffected epi-units
Layer266 8455
Layer – Rearing94 5591
Broiler breeder – Laying40 4872
Layer – Breeder laying7 9001
Production typeCulledAffected epi-units
Layer1 648 47720
Broiler breeder – laying734 56312
Layer – Breeder laying38 350 
Layer – Breeder rearing4 830 
Free State
Production typeCulledAffected epi-units
Layer400 0001
Production typeCulledAffected epi-units
Broiler breeder – laying328 5002
Layer4 000 
North West
Production typeCulledAffected epi-units
Broiler breeder – laying219 0002

Dr Abongile Balarane, the CEO of the layer division of the Southern African Poultry Association (SAPA), said the country has lost around 25% of its national flock – which normally consists of approximately 27 million birds.

“Producers are on high alert with very tight biosecurity measures. However, it appears the H7N6 is still causing problems for industry,” Dr Balarane said. “Remember this is a new strain in South Africa and we are all currently learning about it. Usually, the H5N1 strains start to disappear when we approach warm weather but we are still not yet certain about what will happen with H7.”

Read more about HPAI’s effect in the Western Cape.

Izaak Breitenbach, CEO of SAPA’s broiler division, said while South Africa’s commercial poultry sector’s biosecurity was of a high standard, avian influenza was highly infectious. “The virus can be carried into a cage on a single dust particle, so it spreads incredibly easily. Even if your poultry houses stand 100m apart, that is close enough for the virus to jump from one house to the next.”

Breitenbach added that wild birds perching on the roofs of poultry houses was their biggest problem. “If that bird loses just a feather, it could potentially float into the poultry house and cause the spread of the disease.”

Vaccination options

Dr Balarane said SAPA and industry leaders have started discussions with the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural development (DALLRD) to explore the possibility of procuring emergency vaccines to assist the industry in this catastrophic situation. “It will take us some time to restock the affected farms. In the short term, there will be tight supplies of eggs. We expect the normal supply and demand forces will drive the price of eggs.”

SAPA’s expectations are that vaccinations could commence within two to six months. Dr Bisschop said the emergency import of vaccines from other countries would specifically focus on vaccines that are already registered for use in the European Union or the United States. “A vaccine based on the local strain of H7N6 high pathogenicity avian influenza (HPAI) is being developed for use in South Africa. We are looking at a three- to six-month process before we can vaccinate on a large scale.” – Susan Marais, Plaas Media

Popular stories