Twin crisis for poultry sector, expect food shortages

Five to 10 years ago avian influenza was pretty much the only serious poultry disease South Africa did not have, but it is now running rampant – and the consequences will be severe.
It’s complicated … the policy that controlled previous outbreaks depends on the use of a surveillance system that is only possible if the birds are not vaccinated. Image: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

The poultry sector in South Africa is undergoing serious challenges. Ongoing load shedding and power disruptions have put tremendous pressure and additional costs on the industry, which makes producing poultry products extremely expensive.

One company – Astral Foods – has spent an additional R919 million as a result of load shedding alone. This has obviously had a significant impact on the profitability and sustainability of the company.


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To make matters worse the local poultry industry has now been hit with a major avian influenza epidemic.

Avian influenza (AI) is a viral disease affecting birds, including poultry (the term ‘AI’ is also used to refer to artificial intelligence, but in this article, it refers to avian influenza).

This is a devastating disease and can wipe out a flock in just a few days.

AI is the most widely-studied disease of poultry as it has been causing major problems in poultry industries around the world for many years.

Five to 10 years ago AI was pretty much the only serious poultry disease South Africa did not have. There have been cases of what is called low pathogenic AI in ostriches for some time, but the commercial poultry industry was, for a long time, free of the highly pathogenic strain of the virus. This is unfortunately no longer the case.

Reluctance to vaccinate

In the past, government Veterinary Services was reluctant to allow vaccination of poultry against AI in South Africa. Most major international vaccine manufacturers have highly effective vaccines, which are widely used in many countries where AI has become well-established.

There were two reasons for this reluctance. Firstly, there is a well-organised and well-run surveillance system in place for AI in South Africa. This monitoring programme involves routinely looking for antibodies against AI in commercial poultry.

This surveillance system is only possible if the birds are not vaccinated.

The control policy in the past was a ‘stamping out’ policy. In other words, when AI is detected in a flock, the flock is destroyed.

Secondly, AI has not been a major problem in South Africa in the past and the previous outbreaks were successfully controlled with the stamping-out policy. All this has now changed and AI is running rampant. The consequences of this will be severe.

Chicken types

The commercial poultry industry is based on two different types of birds – the layers and the broilers.

The layers, as the name suggests, are the birds that lay eggs for human consumption. The broiler birds are the meat birds.

In order to maintain the supply of both meat and eggs, there is a complex system of breeder birds, grandparents and great grandparents.

These breeder birds are genetic line birds and play a critical role in keeping the market supplied with poultry products.

If these breeder birds contract AI, they die – either from the virus or from the control efforts.

When this happens, the constant supply of hatching eggs that is needed to keep the layer and broiler farmers supplied with chickens to meet the constant demand for poultry products will be gone.

In other words, there will be a major shortage of poultry.

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As poultry is the most affordable source of protein, this will cause major food shortages and additional hunger problems.

Antibodies vs viruses

There are efforts to now import vaccines against AI. This will assist in controlling the disease in the long term, but will unfortunately not do much to control the current problem.

The reason for this is that it takes time for vaccinated birds to develop antibodies against the virus. As soon as the birds are vaccinated, their immune system will start to make antibodies. Only when there are enough antibodies, will the birds be protected.

It can take up to two weeks to get sufficient antibodies. Even then, if there is too much virus in the field, the immune response of the birds can still be overwhelmed.

In simple terms, if the bird has, let’s say 10 antibodies and there are nine viruses, the antibodies win and the birds are safe. If there are 10 antibodies, but 11 viruses – the viruses win and the birds die.

Obviously, these numbers are not the real numbers and are just used as an explanation. In the major Newcastle disease (NCD) outbreak in the late 1990s, the birds had very high levels of antibodies against NCD and should have been protected. However, there was so much circulating virus that the birds’ immune systems were overwhelmed and the outbreak was very difficult to control.

The only option right now

The only short-term option for control of AI in the current situation is good biosecurity.

It is essential that good biosecurity is in place on the poultry farms. Only high-quality, registered disinfectants must be used for the biosecurity efforts. The ideal product would be one that is non-toxic to the birds and can be used to continually reduce the levels of viruses in the flocks.

Read: SA urges greater biosecurity on avian flu outbreak

Until the vaccination programme can take effect, the only control option is a full continual disinfection programme – which would include using the disinfectant in the drinking water, provided that the product is registered for this application and also to regularly spray the birds, and again only if the product is registered for this application.

The registration of a product ensures that the label claims can be substantiated and there is valid scientific evidence to support the claims made by the producer of the product.

The long-term consequences of this AI infection coupled with the constant problems with load shedding will be the death blow to many small and medium-sized poultry farmers.

It may even become very difficult for the large poultry companies to survive the current crisis.

In order to meet the demand for poultry products, South Africa will most likely become even more reliant on imported poultry products, which is another bone of contention.

Professor Robert Bragg is from the Veterinary Biotechnology Research group in the Department of Microbiology and Biochemistry at the  University of the Free State.


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