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Southern Africa pursues coordinated response to Avian Influenza outbreak

Countries urged to act quickly to exterminate the outbreak

Photo: © FAO/ Satyajit Sarkar

3 August 2017, Johannesburg – The recent outbreaks of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), commonly referred to as the bird flu, are threatening the livelihood and food security status of millions of families in the region. If not tackled quickly, the HPAI outbreak impedes trade opportunities and will reverse the gains made in enhancing food and nutrition security.

In response to the recent outbreaks of the HPAI, experts and policy makers from Southern Africa are meeting to assess preparedness to share information and explore both immediate and longer-term response actions.

Speaking at the meeting, FAO Subregional Coordinator for Southern Africa, David Phiri, emphasized the importance of poultry. “The poultry sector is vital in the region because poultry meat and eggs provide affordable sources of high-quality animal protein to millions of people in the region. Poultry production is also a major source of income for many, particularly rural women and youth”.

Commercial poultry production has grown significantly in the region in recent decades. In South Africa, one of the countries affected, the gross poultry income in 2016 was more than 3.5 billion USD (largest single contributor to the agricultural sector).

Bird flu threatens recovery from El Nino induced drought

SADC representative, Bentry Chaura, said the bird flu had come at a time when the region was struggling to recover from the EL Niño induced humanitarian food shortages (2015 – 2016 season) further worsened by the emergence of other pests such as the fall armyworm which devastated crops this year.

“We are all witnesses of what animal diseases and pests, particularly transboundary animal diseases, can do to worsen the vulnerability of rural based communities. Those do not only affect lives in the community but also normally have a lasting impact on local, regional and international trade,” said Chaura.

In southern Africa, the flu has so far been reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa and Zimbabwe. In the latter two, the disease has mainly been identified on large commercial farms, where systems to monitor outbreaks are readily in place compared to smallholder and backyard producers.

The specter of bird flu outbreaks has been looming across the region since the beginning of the year when Uganda reported an outbreak (January 2017). This prompted FAO to organize a regional meeting on transboundary animal diseases and plant pests in February 2017.

In May, a SADC Meeting of Ministers discussed the threat of the bird flu spreading southwards into the region. Member states were urged to develop the capacity for surveillance, detection, prevention, and rapid response to HPAI.

Countries are now expected to review recommendations from both meetings and agree on practical and time bound actions projected to bring a quick control of the disease. This is expected to minimize its impacts on food and nutrition security, livelihoods and economic development.

Enhancing early warning systems and early action

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. South Africa has so far culled over 800 000 birds, while Zimbabwe puts the figure at approximately 215 000 birds. 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 1 million eggs a day form the affected farms. Small-scale producers are also expected to face shortages of day old chicks in the market.

The poultry industry in the SADC region, with a population of over 380 million birds (according to SADC Animal Health Yearbook 2011), is the largest contributor to the region’s agriculture sector. If not controlled, an HPAI outbreak would lead to huge economic losses to countries due to trade restrictions and culling of poultry among others

FAO is providing emergency response kits to affected countries – protective equipment, diagnostic reagents, etc. The Organization has also supported with the deployment of technical mission to countries where the disease is reported, as was recently seen in Zimbabwe.

The meeting is taking place in Johannesburg, South Africa (2 - 4 August) and has been co-organized by FAO and the SADC secretariat. It is funded by FAO through a grant provided by the Office of United States Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).

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