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WATCH: 2 million birds dead from avian flu, egg shortage looms

04 October, 04:00 AM

Aletta Harrison, News24

Cape Town - "The emotional impact for us as a family business has been severe," explains Pier Passerini.

As the managing director of Windmeul Eggs, Passerini is in the unenviable position of steering a 40-year-old family business through the catastrophic impacts of the avian influenza outbreak.

Located near Wellington, the business is among several in the Western Cape that have been forced to cull hundreds of thousands of hens in an effort to halt the spread of the deadly H5N8 virus, although the birds often die faster than they can kill them.

He says the industry is in complete shock.

bird flu

An estimated two million birds have died or been culled in the Western Cape. Picture: Supplied, News24.

"Most of us, when we speak to each other, are at a loss for words. You know it’s something that was always in the back of your mind as a poultry farmer; you’ve read about in other countries… it’s a nightmare that just happened to become reality…"

The H5N8 strain, which was first detected on 22 June, quickly spread and, at last count, was detected at 36 locations across the province.

Laying farms have been worst affected, with the Western Cape accounting for the majority of cases.

"The poultry industry in the Western Cape is quite concentrated," explains State Veterinarian Dr Lesley van Helden.

"It’s concentrated close to Cape Town, which is obviously where the market for poultry is mainly. And the problem with this is a lot of the farms are within a few kilometres of each other, so it’s much easier for a virus to spread between the farms than if the farms were further apart," Van Helden says.

The result has been the disposal of birds in their millions, and the composting of the carcasses to try and prevent contagion.

Passerini says Windmeul has now lost 70% of its flock to the outbreak, and that the trauma of witnessing death on this scale has affected his whole family and his employees.

"To see tons and tons of birds being disposed of on a daily basis is difficult; it’s difficult for our staff that’s been with us for many years; it’s difficult for us as a family – it’s not easy to see."

Farmers have been instructed to dispose of the carcasses by composting them on site. Picture: Supplied, News24.

The consequences are far reaching. The Western Cape government estimates the immediate industry losses to be R800m, but stated on Monday that the long term financial impact is likely to be around R4bn.

According to Economic Opportunities MEC Alan Winde, the informal economy has been most affected thus far, with the cull bird market in "big trouble".

"Now we’ll start to actually see it in the formal economy, on the shelves in your retailers," he warned.

Of great concern to the provincial government is how this will impact poor households who rely on chicken meat and eggs as their main source of affordable protein.

A light at the end of the tunnel?

While farmers are trying to convince state officials to give permission for vaccinations, the Western Cape government is hoping the change in seasons will help stem the spread of the virus.

 "One of the other areas that also helps us is that it’s getting warmer. And you know with humans and flu – we are more susceptible to flu in winter time. As we move to summer, we are less susceptible to flu and the same thing obviously with Avian Influenza…" Winde said.

But for farmers busy floundering in the wake of the outbreak, simply waiting for summer to take care of the problem may not feel like an appropriate response.

"At this moment in time, there are no solutions," says Passerini.

"And I think that’s the most difficult thing for us as a company to process, because there currently isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel… If we have to repopulate the farms that have gone through this virus, there are no guarantees that in two weeks’ time it won’t happen again…"

He believes vaccinating hens is the only option, but is facing a frustrating wait for permission.

"We are talking to government to try and speed up the process, but we’re not getting the feedback that we require," he explains.

"It’s the only answer at this moment in time; it’s the only solution that can save the industry from total annihilation… We know it comes with other consequences for trade, but at least you’re not carrying the financial losses.

"At this moment in time, I think it’s the only solution.”


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