The recent outbreak of a highly infectious strain of avian influenza in commercial layers on the East Rand have farmers panicked and consumers worried.
The outbreak which led to about 300 chickens being culled and disposed of, also saw Botswana suspending the importation of poultry and poultry products coming from South Africa.
More countries are expected to follow suit.
According to Colin Steenhuisen, interim egg board general manager at the South African Poultry Association (SAPA), the local poultry industry has learned much in dealing with bird flu from the 2017 outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).
“HPAI is not something we take lightly. However, there is no need for panic. Consumers need not fear products of poultry, provided the product – eggs or meat – are cooked properly,” says Steenhuisen.
Poultry farmers and backyard flock owners are once again being urged to implement biosecurity measures to protect birds and help prevent any transfer of disease to humans.
But what are the signs and symptoms of avian influenza, and how can farmers prevent outbreaks from spreading? Food For Mzansi spoke to Steenhuisen from SAPA to find out how armers can stop the disease from spreading, while safeguarding their animals.
1. Look for signs in your poultry
Steenhuisen says it is important that farmers always be on the lookout for the signs of avian influenza in poultry. If your birds suddenly start dying, with others showing signs of a lack of coordination (cannot walk and stand), difficulty in breathing, depression and droopiness, they may have avian influenza.
Other signs to look out for, he says, include swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles and hocks. A sudden fall in egg production, blood discharging from the nostrils and small blood spots under the skin (most visible on feet and legs) are also signs of the flu.
2. Protect your fowls and animals
Apart from regularly cleaning areas where poultry are kept, keep birds that appear sick separate from the rest of the flock and other animals, says Steenhuisen. Nowadays, live bird markets are also a cause for concern as avian flu can flourish and spread in these spaces.
Avian flu can be transmitted between different species: poultry can pass it to other animals like pigs, cats and dogs.
Therefore, it’s important to also keep chickens separated from other animals, including ducks. Ducks can become infected with avian flu without showing any symptoms, and then transmit it to chickens.
Steenhuisen further advises that farmers take extra steps by protecting your supplies of water and feed. “They attract wild birds. Also keep your poultry away from water which may contain wild bird droppings,” he warns.
3. Keep your farm isolated
Steenhuisen believes that proper biosecurity and hygiene practices are farmer’s best and first line of defence against avian flu. Lots of movement to and from you farm can be detrimental to biosecurity. Try to keep the number of visitors to your farm down to a minimum, he advises.
Farmers tend to borrow equipment or vehicles from other farms – this is really a bad idea. However, Steenhuisen warns that it is better to keep all means of transport off your farm as far as possible. However, if transport or equipment must enter, he advises farmers to follow the correct protocols. For example, wash and disinfect all equipment, shoes and vehicles entering your farm before entering the premises.
Remember, avian flu can enter your farm when you introduce new poultry or rough, infected droppings brought in from the outside by shoes, dirty cages and wheels.
4. Fowls sick or dead? Here’s what to do
If your farm becomes infected, what you do next will help control the outbreak, protect people and allow normal production to resume on all farms in the area, especially your own.
Steenhuisen says your first action should be to report any suspicions straight away. Sick or dead birds must be reported immediately to your veterinarian. It is quick actions that will help protect yours and other flocks in the area if the disease is confirmed.
Also, do not leave dead animals lying around outside the chicken house.
“Dispose of mortalities according to the prescribed guidelines. Leave disposal of bird carcasses to the veterinary authorities [or the local equivalent] and help only if they ask for it,” says Steenhuisen.
Manure may also not be disposed of per the routine methods, he explains, so follow the approved protocols.
5. Traders should respect bans
Commercial movement of infected poultry or poultry products is one of the main ways of spreading avian flu, Steenhuisen states.
Traders who respect bans on the movement of poultry and poultry products help prevent the spread of avian flu and protect their own economic activity.
Traders should only sell healthy birds and not risk trading poultry that look sick. It’s also advised to not sell birds of unknown origin – only trade birds that are certificated or are from a trusted source. A great trading practice is selling all animals at the same time and buying animals in one single batch.
“Respect poultry movement bans as this will help control the disease and lead to lifting of the ban. Also, collaborate and co-operate with the veterinary authorities,” Steenhuisen says.