Over 2 million birds now dead in Western Cape's worst bird flu outbreak

Cape Town – More than two million birds have died or have been culled since an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza  - or bird flu - was confirmed in the Western Cape in August, Economic Opportunities MEC Alan Winde said on Monday.

In a statement, Winde said that since August 36 cases of avian influenza had been confirmed in the province. In Winde's previous update in early September, the number of birds culled was 200 000. 

This is the first time that a highly pathogenic strain of bird flu has been detected in poultry in South Africa.  There are an estimated 29 million commercially farmed chickens in the province, and 185 000 “backyard” birds. This means that near 7% of the province's birds have died. 

"The Western Cape is the worst affected province in South Africa. In some regions, poultry production farms are clustered in a specific area. 

"In other provinces, cases have occurred at locations far removed from these hubs," he said. 

Twelve cases, all ostriches, have been confirmed in the Eden district. 

Winde said the province had established a joint operations centre to facilitate the its response to the disaster. 

"[The centre] requested the National Disaster Management Centre's guidance to potentially declare the outbreak a provincial disaster." 

This is the first time that a highly pathogenic strain of bird flu has been detected in poultry in South Africa. 

R800m impact

He said the economic impact of avian influenza on the province was estimated to be in the region of R800m. This number is set to increase significantly as farms lose income from prolonged quarantine restrictions. 

This will inevitably also lead to job losses. 

Winde said a moderate increase in egg prices was expected in the short term to return levels to normal relatively quickly.

"This is of concern as more than 900 000 households buy eggs in the province and another 1.2 million households buy chicken meat – the main animal protein source for the majority of poor households," he said. 

Humanitarian response plan

Western Cape environmental affairs, local government and development planning MEC Anton Bredell said the plight of farm workers was particularly concerning to the provincial department. 

He said financial assessments were being completed with help from the South African Social Security Agency to determine whether or not farmworkers can receive social relief benefits. 

A humanitarian response plan is set to be drafted by the end of the week. 

"In addition, the department of environmental affairs' waste management unit is ensuring the safe disposal of carcasses on affected farms. These are some of the major initiatives at the moment," Bredell said. 

Meanwhile wildlife sanctuary World of Birds in Hout Bay confirmed that one of its birds tested positive for avian influenza. 

In a Facebook post, the sanctuary said it remains open to the public "but there will be conditions of entry."

Avian flu, also known as bird flu or HPAI H5N8, is an infection which commonly spreads among wild aquatic birds and can infect domestic poultry. It normally does not infect people and is treatable.

According to the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations, the disease has been confirmed in more than 45 countries including Germany, France, the United Kingdom and India. 

Dr Aileen Pypers, a state veterinarian for the Boland, previously told Fin24 there have been no reports of humans falling ill due to this strain of bird flu. 

“We still have to be careful, however,’ she said.

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