Bird flu vaccinations delayed

Vaccination could help prevent another devastating bird flu outbreak such as the country’s worst in 2023. It is also an alternative to the culling of millions of chickens, including healthy birds near infection sites, in order to prevent the spread of the disease.

Various vaccines are being tried worldwide. None has yet been put into use in South Africa.

Two bird flu strains are circulating in South Africa – H5N1, which is the predominant strain being experienced worldwide, and H7N6, a uniquely South African strain so far found nowhere else. There are already several vaccines to counter the H5 strain, and vaccines are being developed to deal with H7.

Business Day reported this week that, although the government had approved two vaccines against H5, no permits for their use had been issued because the government and the poultry industry disagree over the protocol to implement the vaccines and how to manage the disease.

The conditions set for farms wanting to vaccinate include expensive surveillance and monitoring of their chicken flocks. Poultry farmers agree that testing is necessary, but say it cannot be done so often that the cost becomes prohibitive.

Specialist poultry veterinarian Shahn Bisschop said: “The government has made the requirements and monitoring programme for companies that want to vaccinate very onerous. It will be extremely expensive. It involves testing all the breeders every week for bird flu.”

He also noted the different objectives involved.

“Government is trying to prevent the spread of bird flu. Industry is trying to get back into business. It is challenging to reconcile these two objectives.”

A more optimistic perspective was given by Izaak Breitenbach of the SA Poultry Association (SAPA).

In his Jacaranda FM interview, Breitenbach said that he hoped the vaccination programme would go ahead in the near future.

“The way forward in that we hope that the H7 vaccine will be approved by the end of February. One big company has already applied for the vaccination and I think, after February, we will see a lot more companies applying for vaccination,” he said.