South Africa reported 145 outbreaks of avian flu and culled 3.7 million birds in 12 months

Young white chickens sit in open-air cages on a poultry farm. (Image: Getty)

  • The South African poultry industry has had 145 outbreaks of avian flu over a year, with 13 new outbreaks reported in the first three months of 2022.
  • A highly infectious strain of avian influenza first hit a commercial farm in the east of Joburg in April 2021.
  • The industry has had to destroy 3.7 million hens, mainly in the eggs industry.
  • The outbreaks are primarily affecting three provinces: the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and Gauteng
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The South African poultry industry is still grappling with high-risk avian influenza, forcing producers to destroy millions of birds.

Since the first outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in April last year, there have been 145 outbreaks reported in the year to end March 2022, the South African Poultry Association (SAPA) said in its latest Poultry Bulletin.

During the first three months of 2022, a total of 13 new outbreaks were reported, SAPA said in its bulletin. Producers in the Western Cape have been the hardest hit, with 68 outbreaks reported, followed by Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, which had 39 and 18 outbreaks, respectively.

“The egg industry in the Western Cape has suffered the greatest losses, with an estimated 30.6% of their layers having been affected by the H5N1 outbreak,” SAPA said.

The poultry industry has not been able to quantify the financial losses it has incurred as a result of avian flu, Izaak Breitenbach, head of the SA Poultry Association’s broiler board said.

Although there are currently zero active cases, the risk remains high and producers have been advised to remain on high alert, he said.

“The last case of bird flu that we had was in February. There are no active cases at the moment under chicken, [but] the wild birds are still testing positive for AI,” Breitenbach said.

“We’ve said to the industry that it’s winter; we would have expected the wild birds to be negative by now because we’ve gone through summer, but they’re still positive. So, it tells us that there is a risk for the disease to access poultry again this winter,” he said.

“All indications are that there is a high risk of HPAI outbreaks occurring in South Africa during the winter of 2022,” the report said.

“International opinion remains opposed to vaccination against HPAI, so losses to the poultry industry will be high if this does occur,” it said.

The first outbreak of avian flu, driven by the H5N1 strain, was first detected on a commercial farm in the East of Johannesburg, initially leading to import bans of varying degrees by several countries, including Botswana, Namibia, Hong Kong, eSwatini, Lesotho, and Mozambique.

Since the first case in April 2021, 3.7 million birds have been culled, mostly in the eggs industry, where 2.9 million were destroyed. In the broiler industry, 800,000 birds were killed. The number of birds killed represents 2.6% of South Africa’s national flock, 9.6% of the egg industry flock, and 0.6% of the broiler flock, the report said.

So far, the 2021 bird flu figures point to a milder impact on the poultry industry relative to what the sector experienced in 2017 when a different strain of avian flu hit poultry producers.

The H5N8 strain behind the 2017 outbreak cost the poultry industry R1.8 billion and resulted in the culling of around 20% of the national flock, or 4.7 hens. At the time, South Africa also experienced a shortage of eggs of between 20% to 50%, Breitenbach said previously.

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