SA poultry farmers fear bird flu may return

The publication draws on an article in the latest edition of the Poultry Bulletin, official journal of the SA Poultry Association (SAPA). It also refers to the financial results of poultry producer Quantum Foods.

“Following heavy losses from highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) over the second half of last year, South Africa’s poultry sector is preparing to resist a repeat of the mortalities and folded businesses in the coming months. There is pressure on authorities to allow poultry vaccination,” WATTPoultry reports.

“As winter approaches, the poultry sector in South Africa has renewed concerns about the threat of HPAI. In particular, farmers are facing uncertainty over the option for vaccination,” it says.

“Over the previous season, 10 million of the nation’s poultry were lost to the disease, according to SAPA, and many small farmers lost their livelihoods.”

It also notes the comments of leading veterinarian Dr Shahn Bisschop that, although no new HPAI infections have been recorded since January, some producers may be reluctant to report suspicious cases out of fear of having all their birds culled. The South African government does not compensate chicken farmers for culled birds.

Discussions over the simplification of vaccination protocols with the agriculture department (DALRRD) have not reached conclusion, and no farm has yet received approval to vaccinate.

“According to SAPA, not even the largest poultry companies are able to meet the biosecurity levels required for vaccination to be approved under current rules. Furthermore, it may now be too late to vaccinate the nation’s poultry flocks before the peak risk of infection,” WATTPoultry reports.

Related: Mexican man dies from bird flu

Scientists are not sure yet whether the bird flu death of a man in Mexico is a serious development or not for transmission of the virus to humans.

This is the first human death from the H5N2 strain of bird flu – different to the H5N1 strain which has infected millions of birds and several hundred humans around the world in the last two decades.

Scientists are puzzled, noting that H5N2 is a low pathogenic strain, meaning it is unlikely to cause severe disease in others. NBC News reports that the Mexican man was already very sick, and might have survived the bird flu infection had he been healthier. Investigations are continuing, as the victim had been bedridden for weeks and there is so far no evidence that he had been in contact with infected birds or animals.

While this is the first death from the H5N2 strain, the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain has killed more than 400 people around the world since 2003. The World Health Organisation reported last month  that of the 889 people known to have been infected with the H5N1 virus, 463 had died – a mortality rate of 52%.

While thousands of mammals have died of bird flu, they have nearly all been scavengers such as seals, sea lions, bears, foxes and felines, including domestic cats, that may have fed on infected birds. 

A mystery development this year has been the emergence of the H5N1 strain in dairy cows in 84 herds in the United States. No cows have died and the one dairy worker who contracted the disease only had mild symptoms. One theory is that the cows had been eating grass or feed that sick birds had infected.

There has so far been no indication that the virus has mutated to enable human to human transmission. Scientists remain vigilant.