- South Africa’s poultry sector faces enormous cost challenges due to load shedding and power disruptions.
- Avian influenza (AI) epidemic hitting the local poultry industry. AI is a devastating disease of poultry that can wipe out a flock in just a few days.
- Previous reluctance to allow vaccination against AI in South Africa due to a well-organised surveillance system.
South Africa’s poultry sector is currently undergoing serious challenges. The 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 $47.56 million (R919 million) due to load shedding alone. This has had a significant impact on the profitability and sustainability of the company.
To make matters worse – South Africa’s poultry sector has been hit with a significant avian influenza epidemic.
Avian Influenza hits South Africa’s poultry sector
Avian Influenza (AI) is a viral disease of birds, including poultry. The term “AI” is frequently in the news and often refers to artificial intelligence. In this article, the term AI refers to Avian Influenza. This devastating poultry disease can wipe out a flock in just a few days. AI is the most widely studied poultry disease, as it has been causing significant problems in poultry industries worldwide for many years.
In the past (five to 10 years ago), Avian influenza (AI) was pretty much the only severe poultry disease that South Africa did not have. There have been low pathogenic Avian Influenza cases in ostriches for some time. However, the commercial poultry industry was, for a long time, free of the highly pathogenic strain of the virus. This is now, unfortunately, no longer the case.
In the past, Veterinary Services was reluctant to allow poultry vaccination in South Africa against AI. Most major international vaccine manufacturers have highly effective vaccines against AI, widely used in many countries where AI has become well-established.
There were two reasons for this reluctance to allow vaccination against AI. Firstly, a well-organised and -run surveillance system is in place for AI in South Africa. The basis of this monitoring program is 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.
Avian Influenza is running wild
In other words, when AI is detected in a flock, the flock is destroyed. Secondly, AI has not been a significant problem in South Africa in the past, and the previous outbreaks were successfully controlled with the stamping-out policy that was in place. Previous AI outbreaks were successfully controlled.
All this has now changed, and AI is running rampant. The consequences of this will be severe. The commercial poultry industry is based on two types of birds – the layers and the broilers. As the name suggests, the layers are the birds that lay eggs for human consumption. The broiler birds are the meat birds.
There is a complex system of breeder birds, grandparents, and great-grandparents to maintain the supply of meat and eggs. These breeder birds are genetic line birds and play a critical role in keeping the market supplied with poultry products. If (and when) these breeder birds contract AI, they will die (either from the virus infection or from the control efforts).
When this happens, the constant supply of hatching eggs 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 significant shortage of poultry. As poultry is the most affordable source of protein, this will cause significant food shortages and additional hunger problems.
Antibodies vs viruses
There are efforts to import vaccines against AI now. This will assist with controlling the disease in the long term but will, unfortunately, not do much to control the current problem in the short term. This is because 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 several antibodies (let’s use an understandable number to explain) of 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. These numbers are not the actual numbers and are just used as an explanation.
In the significant Newcastle disease (NCD) outbreak in the late 1990s, the birds had very high antibodies against NCD and should have been protected. However, there was so much circulating virus that the birds’ immune system was overwhelmed, and this outbreak was challenging to control.
The only short-term option for control of AI in the current situation is good biosecurity. Good biosecurity must be in place on the poultry farms. Only high-quality, registered disinfectants must be used for the biosecurity efforts.
The ideal product would be non-toxic to the birds and can be used to reduce viruses in the flocks continually. Until the vaccination program can take effect, the only control option is a complete continual disinfection program, which would include using the disinfectant in the drinking water, provided that the product is registered for this application, and also regularly spray the birds – 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 producers 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 challenging for large poultry companies to survive the current crisis. 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.
Opinion by Prof Robert Bragg, Veterinary Biotechnology in the Department of Microbiology and Biochemistry, University of the Free State. Email: email@example.com