South Africa

Poultry industry calls on minister to avert another avian flu outbreak

The local poultry industry could face another devastating avian flu outbreak and need to use vaccinations urgently to avoid a catastrophe.

The South African poultry industry is calling on the minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development to step in to avert another avian flu outbreak after the local poultry industry was devasted by the H7N6 strain last year.

More than 9.5 million chickens were culled to curb outbreaks, including over 2.5 million broiler breeder chickens and approximately 6 million of South African’s layer flock. Thanks to strong biosecurity protocols and monitoring programs, the infection was halted, and the industry is recovering.

However, Izaak Breitenbach, general manager of the South African Poultry Association’s Broiler Organisation, says the local industry is facing a critical juncture as it grapples with the devastating impact of the H7N6 strain of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI).

“In the wake of a year marred by significant losses, including the culling of 9.5 million birds, the industry is sounding the alarm for immediate intervention to avert another catastrophic outbreak,” he says.

“Traditionally reliant on a stamping out policy, the industry acknowledges the inefficiency of this approach against the H7N6 strain. With no compensation mechanism in place for culled birds, producers shoulder the heavy burden of financial losses, including the costs associated with cleaning infected premises and restocking farms.”

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Small producers forced to close last year during avian flu outbreak

Breitenbach says the toll has been particularly harsh on smaller producers, with many forced out of business, while larger companies reported record financial losses.

“Recognising the urgent need for a proactive strategy, the South African poultry industry is advocating for the mandatory implementation of Avian Influenza vaccination. However, current regulations pose significant challenges, with stringent biosecurity standards and monitoring protocols hindering widespread vaccination efforts.”

He says despite the industry’s willingness to comply, no company has yet met the rigorous requirements for the avian flu vaccination, underscoring the urgency for practical solutions.

Reggie Ngcobo, spokesperson for the department, said last year that due to the high probability of the avian flu virus mutating and becoming zoonotic, care needs to be taken on the quality and efficacy parameters of the vaccine chosen for use in this exercise.

“The criteria under which vaccination will be permitted is almost in its final development stage and only farms with good biosecurity and approved to vaccinate by the department will be given permission to vaccinate. The other requirements for vaccination will be surveillance to enable early detection of incursion and mandatory slaughter of vaccinated chickens.”

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France successfully vaccinated 21 million ducks

Breitenbach says drawing on international examples, such as France’s successful vaccination of 21 million ducks, the industry emphasizes the tangible benefits of widespread vaccination in curbing HPAI outbreaks.

“Urgent action is needed to align vaccination requirements with practical implementation, ensuring that companies of all sizes can effectively protect their flocks and prevent future disasters.”

Breitenbach says the poultry industry in South Africa urges minister Didiza to spearhead a process that addresses the critical issues hampering vaccination efforts.

“By establishing practical, science-based guidelines and resolving existing barriers, government can safeguard food security, mitigate economic losses and protect against the environmental impact of mass bird culling.”

In the face of looming threats of another outbreak, the South African poultry industry stands ready to collaborate with government stakeholders to implement effective vaccination strategies and prevent another devastating HPAI outbreak, Breitenbach says.