Durban - After being devastated by highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N8) - or bird flu - outbreaks in 2017, South Africa’s poultry industry, which includes domestic fowl such as chicken, geese and ducks, could face another wave of outbreaks in winter 2018, warn industry officials.
According to Bomikazi Molapo, spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (DAFF), H5N8 is a virus that can cause high mortality in birds.
"The disease is highly infectious and may result in the death of many chickens in a short space of time," she said.
Deon de Beer, avian veterinarian and founder of Klapmuts Bird Clinic, said seasonal changes increase the risk of bird flu outbreaks.
"In the winter, the chicken houses are closed, ventilation is poor, the immune systems of the birds are low, and bird flu spreads like wildfire," he explained.
"Winter creates a situation where you combine a lot of [vulnerable] hosts and outbreaks will happen again."
More focus on wild bird infections needed
De Beer added that there needed to be a focus on the rate of infections among wild birds to predict how the poultry industry will fare in 2018.
"H5N8 is often carried by wild birds, which infect domestic bird populations," he noted.
"There are still wild birds dying on a continual basis and if wild birds are carrying the virus, poultry birds have a high chance of being infected. There is too little focus on what is happening in wild bird populations, as what happens in wild bird populations will predict what will happen in the poultry industry."
Bianca Capazorio, spokesperson for the Western Cape Ministry of Economic Opportunities, said recent tests on wild birds in the Western Cape, the province that reported the highest incidence rate of H5N8 last year, were positive for the virus.
"Testing of Swift Terns found at five different sites across the City of Cape Town came back positive for the virus," she said.
"We have urged farmers to maintain strict biosecurity measures. Due to the spread of the virus by wild birds, [another outbreak in 2018] is a possibility."
Rising cost of poultry products a major concern
Since culling measures were introduced to curb the spread of H5N8, food prices related to poultry have soared.
Louw Pienaar, economist at the Department of Agriculture, reported that egg prices in South Africa had spiked by 16.9% from November 2016 to November 2017.
He said the Western Cape was most affected by rising poultry prices.
"The price of 18 eggs increased from R38.42 to R42.66 between September and October of last year in the Western Cape," Pienaar said.
"A more detailed report from the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) on the economic impact of the outbreak is expected at the end of January 2018."
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