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Animal diseases are increasingly becoming a major global challenge

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Wandile Sihlobo is the chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of SA and a senior fellow in Stellenbosch University's Department of Agricultural Economics. His latest book is “A Country of Two Agricultures”.

Encouragingly, outside the US, we don’t know of any cases where bird flu has transitioned into livestock and people. I have recently communicated with South Africa’s Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development leadership to understand if this matter is under monitoring, and the country remains safe. Indeed, South Africa remains secure and vigilant. This issue is primarily in a couple of states in the US. 

About a month ago, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state veterinary and public health officials released a report stating that they are studying an illness among dairy cows in various states. 

This report came after the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (bird flu), which commonly affects poultry farms, was discovered in dairy cows and the subsequent infection of a dairy farm employee. 

The virus has spread to more states over the past month. Recent reports suggest the virus has spread to 36 cattle herds across nine states (from six states at the beginning of April). 

Concerns remain in the US about the subsequent transmission to humans and other livestock products. The scientists are currently studying this outbreak and have called for calm among the consumers. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention views it as “a low risk to the general public at this time”.

There are also ongoing discussions about ways of containing its spread and tests of possible vaccines in the US.

Encouragingly, outside the US, we don’t know of any cases where bird flu has transitioned into livestock and people. I have recently communicated with South Africa’s Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development leadership to understand if this matter is under monitoring, and the country remains safe. Indeed, South Africa remains secure and vigilant. This issue is primarily in a couple of states in the US. 

Animal diseases are a major global challenge, and we will likely continue to see animal disease outbreak reports in the coming years. Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas are some regions that typically report disease outbreaks such as avian flu, foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever. 

Therefore, South Africa must strengthen surveillance to ensure an agile response from regulators when there are outbreaks. As part of the long-term planning, South Africa’s Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development should also increase its spending on animal health-related matters and build local capacity. This is essential to support the subsector, making up nearly half South Africa’s agricultural economy.

Because South Africa has recently suffered the spread of animal disease, farming businesses and government officials arguably remain on high alert, which helps with surveillance in times of such high risk of animal diseases globally. 

The frequent occurrences of animal diseases also imply that some countries, like South Africa in 2021 and 2022, may occasionally lose access to export markets while they work to clear the disease. 

During such times, the disease-free countries would potentially increase their volume of exports to markets. South African red meat and livestock product exporters should always be alert to opportunistic export gaps. This is not a unique practice in South Africa; competitors typically increase their market presence when other suppliers are constrained.

In essence, animal diseases are increasingly a significant challenge globally. South Africa has undergone various cycles of foot-and-mouth disease in the cattle industry, multiple strains of avian influenza in poultry and the African swine fever in the pig industry. All these episodes were costly to farming businesses and distracted South Africa from its export ambition. Notably, there is always a risk of another outbreak as some of these diseases have become pervasive.

The news of the US bird flu transmission to dairy and humans reminds us of animal disease risks and uncertainty. Fortunately, South Africa remains safe. Still, the farmers, feedlots and regulators should remain vigilant.DM

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