Disaster: Avian flu toll nears 10 million

27 September 2023

By: Carien Kruger

The H7N6 strain of highly contagious avian flu has led to the loss of at least 20% of laying hens in the South African egg industry and more than a quarter of broiler breeders in the poultry industry.

Izaak Breitenbach, general manager of the South African Poultry Association (Sapa) broiler division, says more than 5 million laying hens have been culled due to H7N6, and another 3 million are potentially infected with the virus. 

More than 2.5 million broiler breeders have been culled, with about 200 000 laying hen breeders also lost.

In the worst avian flu crisis in South Africa since the initial outbreak in 2017, the H7N6 strain has now been reported in Gauteng, Mpumalanga, North West, Limpopo and the Free State.

According to the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, whose official figures take longer to reflect the situation on farms, there had been more than 40 outbreaks, mostly in Gauteng, by September 21.

H5N1 outbreaks in the Western Cape earlier this year and recently in KwaZulu-Natal have led to the loss of at least 1.3 million poultry.

Consumer prices for eggs have already begun to rise in the northern provinces, and egg shelves in stores are becoming increasingly empty. South Africa’s largest broiler producer, Astral Foods, expects lower chicken meat production in December due to the loss of breeders.

The department says it has authorised the import of fertilized eggs for the broiler chicken industry and will consider a similar request for the table egg industry if it is made. The department has also facilitated the transit of fertilised eggs to Eswatini for its broiler chicken industry.

Urgent need for vaccines

Dr Wilhelm Maré, chairman of the South African Veterinary Association poultry group, says the impact of this year’s outbreak is catastrophic, and H7 and H5 vaccines are essential to control the disease. “We urgently need them. Vaccination is the best possible mechanism,” he says.

Breitenbach says Sapa has reached an agreement with the department to import H5 and H7 vaccines. “We can only import vaccines that are registered in the European Union or the United States,” he says.

“We have identified two vaccines, and an Article 21 application to import them, in terms of the Medicines and Related Substances Act (Act 101 of 1965), is being processed. The vaccines will be available within two to six months and can only be administered to day-old chicks.

“We also have approval to develop a vaccine locally against H7, but it will have to go through the testing process.”

Breitenbach says it is important to consider the outbreak as similar to those in the EU and the US. “The inference is that the disease has become endemic, and vaccination is now necessary.”

Maré urged producers who suspect an outbreak on their farms to get a veterinarian to diagnose it as soon as possible. “Farms must be quarantined until a diagnosis is made. In all cases where avian flu is suspected, the state veterinarian must be notified.”

Financial ruin

Paul Makube, senior agricultural economist at FNB, says the avian flu outbreaks come at a time when producers’ profit margins have been eroded by load-shedding and they have had to make generators a permanent part of their operations.

The number of chickens lost to avian flu has significant financial implications for producers, says Makube, because those who are already in financial trouble will find it difficult to get further assistance.

Higher fuel costs will increase production costs, but lower production due to avian flu means lower income and potential financial ruin. The industry was already behind in recovering production costs.

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