Johannesburg – SA poultry farmers are scrambling to boost biosecurity measures to curb the spread of the virus, as government considers rolling out a vaccination programme.
Speaking to Fin24 by phone on Tuesday, Greg Celliers, a veterinarian for the commercial egg divisions of the Kuipers Group, said farmers are at the mercy of nature when it comes to controlling the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza of the strain H5N8.
He said poultry farmers and government were “caught on the back foot” when the virus started to spread.
“We haven’t yet had an influenza that had made chickens die,” he explained. While the SA poultry industry had experienced low pathogenic versions of bird flu, these infected birds but didn't kill them or require culling.
“I don’t think we were ready for it,” said Celliers.
Following the virus outbreak at the operations of free range far, Rooikraal Arendnes in the east of Gauteng, which producers poultry products for the Kuipers Group, the parent of Eggbert Eggs, steps were ensure better biosecurity.
Celliers said biosecurity measures include covering bird houses with hail netting to prevent contact with wild birds. “We literally wrap them so nothing can get in.”
Dr Charlotte Nkuna, interim CEO of South Africa Poultry Association, added that the virus was unprecedented as it spread from wild birds to domestic birds. She earlier said that 4 million birds had been culled nationwide.
Celliers said that movement of people on poultry farms has also been restricted. Only employees are allowed on farms.
When arriving on farms, they have to shower and wear clothes that are washed and reamin on the farms. Vehicles are also sprayed with disinfectant at farm gates.
“Before this virus we got away with being slack in certain instances. But now it is just no longer an option," said Celliers. "Now we have one standard enforced through all of our operations.”
“That is the way chicken farming will be done in the future. It will change everything we do and farm,” he said.
Gawie Rossouw, general manager of Eggbert Eggs, said that the producer had to learn about the virus in the process of curbing the outbreak. The avian influenza outbreaks happened on farms with “incredibly good” biosecurity, he said.
Bird houses at Maya Serobe in Gauteng are now standing empty as chickens have been culled to stop the spread of the outbreak. (Litaletu Zidepa, News24).
On Thursday, the Western Cape's MEC for Economic Opportunities, Alan Winde said the virus was still spreading rapidly in the province.
“Many farmers have been proactive with testing their flocks for early detection of avian influenza and culling them quickly in response to positive tests," he said. "Some of the farmers have also bought and put down lime around their properties to try and prevent the virus from spreading.”
The debate on wherether poultry should be vaccinated against the virus had reached a stalemate, said Celliers. “It does not look like we will be allowed it [vaccination] by the end of this year.”
Some in the poultry industry wants the state to provide vaccination against the virus as a means to protect birds. But government authorities have argued there is no evidence these vaccines can work, said Celliers.
“The vaccines available have not been tried and tested particularly to our strain.”
But Celliers argued that vaccines could provide some level of immunity.
Winde said the Department of Agricultre was still considering the industry’s application for vaccination. "They are also finalising discussions on possible financial support," he said.
Earlier this year Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana said that vaccination of birds would create an "endemic situation, affect surveillance efforts and affect our export certification".
"All our trade partners only want products from a country that is free of avian influenza where vaccination is not practised," he said.
SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE UPDATE: Get Fin24's top morning business news and opinions in your inbox.