The outbreak, being described as one of the most devastating to hit South Africa since the H5N8 bird flu in 2017, has triggered fears that South Africans will soon be faced with extreme prices for chicken meat and eggs, as well as chicken meat and egg shortages.
According to the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (agriculture department), as of 21 September, the country has experienced a total of 50 outbreaks of the H7 strain of bird flu, and 10 outbreaks of the H5 strain of bird flu. The H7 strain has reportedly not been documented anywhere else in the world.
A total of 37 H7 cases were reported in Gauteng, which had been the hardest hit province in this regard. The H5 variant was dominant in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. H7 outbreaks were also being reported in Limpopo, North West, Free State and Mpumalanga.
The department announced on Monday night that it had met with vaccine registration regulators and reached an agreement “that the registration of [a bird flu] vaccine [would] be fast-tracked” in an effort to control the outbreak.
Agriculture department spokesperson Reggie Ngcobo said the department had already facilitated the importation of fertile eggs for the broiler industry. “A similar request for [layers] will be considered if received.”
According to the South African Poultry Association’s (SAPA) general manager Izaak Breitenbach, the outbreak was wreaking havoc on South Africa’s poultry industry and showed no sign of abating.
He said since the beginning of 2023 to date, the industry had seen in excess of five million commercial layer birds culled and in excess of 2,5 million broilers culled as a result of the outbreak.
He said the H5 and H7 strains were highly virulent and that infections were not abating, with the association receiving daily reports of more infections. He said this would impact the supply of table eggs and chicken meat within the next few weeks. Breitenbach added that a shortage of table eggs was already being experienced in some parts of the country.
“I anticipate [countrywide] shortages within the next six to eight weeks. However, [the industry] has applied to import 10 million fertilised broiler eggs that will be used to produce broilers to make up for the shortage. I also expect that the total amount of [chicken] meat imports will increase from now until about December.”
Breitenbach said while the outbreak was concerning for the industry, consumers could rest assured that they would not be exposed to the virus through eggs or chicken meat.
“Consumers do not need to be worried about the meat in the marketplace. None of the infected chickens will reach consumers.”
He said the virus also did not affect humans.
Speaking about the vaccines, Breitenbach said the expected arrival was anywhere from two to six months’ time.
“The vaccine will stimulate the chickens’ immune systems and so they will not be as prone to infection. Hopefully this will curb the devastating mortality rate that we are currently facing with unvaccinated birds.”