South Africa

South Africa

Bird Flu : Outbreak leaves a ‘fowl’ taste in the mouth

The South African government has issued a national ban on the sale of live chickens. The ban follows an outbreak of the contagious H5N8 avian flu virus on at least two farms – both in Mpumalanga – where they will now have to cull thousands of egg-laying birds. But it's not just the large-scale chicken farmers who will feel the economic impact of the ban – sellers of live chickens on the streets of Soweto are also being hit hard. By BHEKI C SIMELANE

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Simon Mtonga, 70, has only 16 live chickens left to sell. When they are sold, Mtonga and his family will be facing starvation.

I’m a small-scale chicken seller, so we buy from farms around Johannesburg, but they have told us to hold off until 17 July. By then my six grandchildren will be starving.”

On Monday, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries instituted a national ban on all chicken farmers prohibiting the sale of live birds following an outbreak of the H5N8 strain of bird flu.

They say they can’t sell us chicken because they have received calls from the government warning that if they come across truckloads of chicken, they will confiscate the fowls,” Mtonga said.

The virus is believed to have been brought into the country by birds from Zimbabwe. South African Poultry Association CEO Kevin Lovell said the particular strain of the virus had originated in Europe and probably came to Africa through migratory wild ducks.

So far, at least 24 European countries have reported H5N8 outbreaks since June 2016, at least three of them in the past two weeks. Countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa have also reported H5N8 outbreaks, the Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy said.

But for South Africa, containing the virus is more important than identifying its origins right now.

Until it is contained, sellers like Mtonga and the people they employ face a tough time ahead.

If the ban remains in place for two weeks as proposed by the government, Mtonga stands to lose about R4,000 in profit. In a fortnight, Mtonga may be forced to shut up shop, tell the woman who plucks chickens for his customers that she no longer has work and find a new way to put food on his family’s table.

My grandchildren will drop out of school, but, not only that, they will be hungry as I am the only person caring for them. I’m already at a crossroads here. I do not know whether to hang in there and hope for a miracle or simply give up,” Mtonga said.

Asked on the whereabouts of the woman who plucks the chickens, Mtonga said he had already sent her home because there was not much for her to do as there was not much stock left. Without the chickens, Mtongo’s employee and her family will also find themselves hungry as they will now also not have access to the gizzards that she cleans out of the birds for the customers.

The two farms where the virus has been identified stand to lose hundreds of thousands of birds.

Speaking to Business Day, Lovell said all 280,000 birds on the Standerton farm would ultimately have to be culled, although the first step would be to slaughter the infected 25,000 birds housed separately.

Exporters of chicken are also affected. According to AFP, four countries have banned chicken imports from South Africa.

On Tuesday, Namibia followed Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Zambia in halting imports.

We will reassess the situation after 14 days, and depending on the extent of the situation may decide to lift the ban,” Bomikazi Molapo, spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said.

But depending on the extent of the outbreak, the department did not rule out the possibility that more chickens might have to be culled should the virus spread.

We have people on the ground tirelessly working to trace if the virus has spread,” Molapo said.

In 2016, there were several outbreaks of a low pathogenic bird flu virus on ostrich farms. Then, movement controls, screening and quarantines were used to control the spread of the disease.

Molapo said to contain the latest outbreak, the department was appealing to producers, sellers and buyers to honour the ban, saying the less chickens there were in circulation, and in contact with wild birds, the quicker the situation could be resolved.

Lovell said there was no need for South Africans to panic as frozen chicken products currently available in supermarkets was safe to consume.

His assurance come after the World Health Organisation (WHO) in January urged countries to step up their efforts to detect possible human avian flu cases.

Caroline Brown, MD, programme manager for flu and other respiratory pathogens for the WHO’s Regional Office for Europe, said in a statement that although no human H5N8 cases have been reported so far, “this does not mean this cannot happen, as experience tells us”. DM

Photo: A file picture dated 02 May 2014 shows South African women selling chicken on a roadside in Gugulethu, Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: EPA/NIC BOTHMA

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