The spread of highly pathogenic strains of avian influenza in Africa is of concern for the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
“In Africa, for some time now the disease was in north and West-Africa, but in late January, the H5N8 strain spread to Uganda, hence causing more fears of possible spread to Southern Africa,” said Dr Moetapele Letshwenyo, OIE representative for Southern Africa.
According to Letshwenyo, there are fears that the pathogenic strains (H5 and H7) might spread because of the presence of migratory birds.
Figures from the OIE show the most frequent subtype of the highly pathogenic strains in Europe, H5N8, has led to the death of large numbers of poultry in Europe. 24 countries are still trying to contain the illness.
Outside of Europe a total of nine countries have reported H5N8 strains since 2016. The strain is also still not contained in countries like China, Chinese Taipei, Egypt, Israel, Kuwait, Nigeria, Tunisia and Uganda.
Letshwenyo said it’s important to prevent the illness from crossing borders. In the worst cases the disease leads to people losing their livelihoods and eventually causing food insecurity and poverty.
“Poultry meat is a relatively cheaper source of protein affordable to most people, compared to other sources like beef. This will reverse all the gains that have been achieved towards the achievement of sustainable development goals,” Letshwenyo said.
He said factors that might enhance the spread in Africa are the presence of susceptible animals, low bio-security on smallholder bird farms and open live markets. Most of the countries are also on the routes of migratory wild birds.
The warmer African climate, however, does make it more difficult for the virus to survive.
Letshwenyo was a speaker at a regional conference on the spread of pests held in the Zimbabwean capital Harare, last week. The spread of deadly strains of bird flu was one of the key issues discussed.
He said in 2005/6 a similar scare about the spread of pathogenic strains into the region led to an action plan which had to help increase readiness for similar situations.
Letshwenyo said one of the aims of the meeting was to revisit and revive the plans to enhance preparedness and to focus on preventing, rather than handling the disease in Southern Africa.