Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has so far been reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The first ever confirmation of outbreaks of the flu in Southern Africa would have far-reaching animal health, food and nutritional security and socio-economic impacts in the sub-region, FAO stressed in August 2017.
The outbreak of HPAI in Southern Africa comes at a time when the region is struggling to recover from the EL Niño-induced humanitarian food shortages (2015-2016 season) that were further worsened by the emergence of other pests such as the fall armyworm, which devastated crops this year.
Given that some countries in North, West and Eastern Africa had confirmed presence of avian influenza earlier this year, as well as the global increase in cases of the disease, its outbreak in Southern Africa was predictable, according to FAO. The most likely carriers of the virus are migratory birds, following their usual migratory paths through southern Africa and exposing domestic poultry to the disease.
Commercial poultry production is an important factor in the region. It has grown significantly in recent decades. In South Africa, one of the countries affected, gross poultry income in 2016 was more than 3.5 billion USD, making poultry production the largest single contributor to the agricultural sector.
Since the first outbreak in the region in May 2017, the Member States have already implemented a series of actions including heightened surveillance, quarantine, importation bans of poultry and poultry products from affected countries and awareness raising.
In addition, depopulation has already taken place in affected countries. This is likely to have a knock-on effect on the availability of table eggs and poultry meat for consumers in the region. South Africa alone is destroying one million eggs a day from the affected farms. Small-scale producers are also expected to face shortages of day-old chicks in the market.
The likelihood of new outbreaks of Avian Influenza in the region remains high, according to FAO. However, producers can protect susceptible poultry flocks by strengthening biosecurity measures, and national authorities need to strengthen preparedness and response capacities, controls and measures put in place to monitor disease in poultry flocks and in wild bird populations, and to ensure compliance with import and export controls.
While some strains of the Avian Influenza virus have the potential to become infectious to humans, the H5N8 Virus currently reported in Southern Africa has not been known to affect human health.