Maverick Citizen


Avian flu lowdown: Feeling ill? It is not likely to be from the chicken or the eggs

Avian flu lowdown: Feeling ill? It is not likely to be from the chicken or the eggs
(Photo collage: Gallo Images / Rapport /, Elizabeth Sejake, Shiraaz Mohamed, iStock.

With South Africans in the grip of a severe flu season, we asked Professor Cheryl Cohen from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases what is going on and how you can protect yourself this winter.

South Africa is in the grip of flu season and an outbreak of avian flu among chickens in the Western Cape. But they are not the same thing.

It would be rare to get it from birds

To start with, Professor Cheryl Cohen from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said it would be very rare for humans to catch avian flu from a chicken or other infected birds.

“Avian influenza is a disease of birds. People in the general population are not at risk of being infected with this virus. In rare circumstances humans who are in very close contact with infected birds, for example workers on poultry farms, can be infected. In the rare event that a human infection does occur, the virus is not adapted to spread between people and so the risk of transmission from an infected person is extremely low,” she said.

Are avian flu and human flu different?

“Avian flu is a disease of birds which is caused by different flu strains which are adapted to spread in birds, not people,” Cohen said.

Is it safe to eat eggs and chicken during this outbreak? 

Yes, Cohen said, it is safe to eat eggs and chicken meat in South Africa.

Is this a bad flu season?

Cohen said: “Influenza transmission is currently [at a] high level and the impact is moderate with circulation increasing week on week. This indicates that transmission is above the average levels seen in years before the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The latest report from the NICD provides the following statistics on the flu:

The 2023 flu season started around 24 April. The institute uses checkpoints across the country to see how bad the season is and what the dominant strain is.

All affected farms have been immediately placed under quarantine and no live animals/birds and eggs are allowed to be removed from the farm.

This data showed the dominant strain is Influenza A (H1N1). This is colloquially known as swine flu because it was first identified in pigs.

Pertussis is also still going around, with most cases detected in Gauteng, the Western Cape and North West, while some Covid-19 cases are being diagnosed as well.

How would you know if you have the flu?

“Flu can appear like any respiratory illness and can range from mild to severe. Some symptoms can suggest the illness is caused by the influenza virus. These are the sudden onset of illness, fever, severe body pains and cough. People should seek medical care if they have difficulty breathing or the symptoms are worsening or not resolving after a few days,” Cohen explained.

Will it help to wear a mask?

Wearing a medical mask can reduce the risk of getting the flu if used correctly. Washing hands regularly and avoiding large gatherings in poorly ventilated environments can also reduce risk. But the best way to prevent it is the vaccine. While it is best to get the jab before the start of the season, it is not too late to vaccinate since circulation is expected to occur for several more weeks. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: It’s make or break for Western Cape egg producers after bird flu lays waste to top supplier

Vaccination is particularly important for people at high risk of severe disease, such as the elderly, those with chronic diseases (including heart and lung disease, HIV and tuberculosis) and pregnant women. For people in risk groups the vaccine is available free of charge at public clinics.

What about avian flu?

The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development has confirmed an outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) at five farms in the Western Cape. 

Department spokesperson Reggie Ngcobo explained the risks and precautions:

“All affected farms have been immediately placed under quarantine and no live animals/birds and eggs are allowed to be removed from the farm. The department would like to reassure consumers that commercial poultry meat and eggs are safe to eat. Care should, however, be taken when preparing food to avoid other food-borne pathogens. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: A bird flu outbreak in Brazil could have dire consequences for food security in SA

“Birds infected with HPAI get sick fairly quickly and die. Generally, the first sign of sick animals, including birds, is a drop in production, meaning that sick birds will produce very few (if any) eggs. This, together with the added mitigation of placing farms under quarantine, means no eggs from infected properties will make their way to shelves.

“We strongly encourage all poultry farmers, including those with birds kept as a hobby or for zoo purposes, to adhere to strict biosecurity measures to prevent the introduction of HPAI. We also urge farmers and individuals to report any suspected outbreak to the responsible private or state veterinarian.” DM


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