The first ever confirmation of outbreaks of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in southern Africa (so far reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, in that order), has far-reaching animal health, food and nutritional security and socio-economic impacts in the Sub-region. The potential losses due to the devastating nature of the disease and attendant negative impacts on trade in poultry are a further blow in a region that is struggling to recuperate from the effects of consecutive droughts and other emerging high impact trans-boundary crop pests and animal diseases such as the fall army worm and foot and mouth disease. Poultry is relatively cheap, easily accessible and high quality source of protein and poultry production presents livelihoods opportunities, particularly for rural women and youth.
By Chimimba David Phiri and Moetapele Letshwenyo
The outbreaks are expected to challenge the preparedness and response capacities of countries and to trigger a reconfiguration of the structure of poultry production, policies, regulations and trade both at national and regional level. The manner and effectiveness with which this disease outbreak is managed will determine the severity of the losses to the Sub-region.
As such, the time to act is now. The clarion call is for all countries in the Subregion, those already infected and those that are still free but are at risk of infection, to move swiftly and in coordinated manner, to control the disease. Failing to do so could see the region relapsing into further food and income insecurity and massive losses on the gains that have been made in recent years.
The outbreak of the avian influenza was predictable after some countries in North, West and Eastern Africa confirmed its presence earlier this year, as well as the global increase in cases of the disease. In an emergency regional conference on emerging transboundary animal and crop pests and diseases, convened by FAO, SADC and OIE in February 2017, experts and delegates were warned of this likelihood. The meeting was alerted to a scenario of migratory birds, the most likely carrier of the virus, following their usual migratory paths through southern Africa and exposing domestic poultry to the disease.
While the recommendations made during the February meeting could not be a panacea to the current outbreak, it served as a reminder of the risk of introduction of the disease and remains the most compelling starting point for the region to respond to the outbreak.
Strengthening preparedness, response and surveillance systems
Responding to the avian influenza outbreak requires national authorities to be better prepared and entails strengthening the existing information and surveillance systems. The region can borrow heavily from good international practices that have successfully contained the bird flu. One way of doing this is to strengthen HPAI surveillance in domestic poultry and wild bird populations at the country and regional levels. This could be achieved by further capacitating existing national structures, based on contingency plans that were developed many years ago in response to the pandemic HPAI and are modeled along response plans that have been effective in monitoring and containing trans-boundary pests and diseases.
Furthermore, it is also important for all countries in the Subregion to have Early Warning or Alert systems that are fully functional. These systems enable policy makers to take quick action and to trigger timely and appropriate responses, based on accurate and timely information.
The recent emergence of HPAI, as well as that of the fall army worm late last year through to 2017, have revealed that most countries do not have updated contingency plans. The perennial emergence of new pests and diseases is another strong call for updating of contingency plans at national and regional level. It is also important to review legal frameworks, strengthen regional coordination and in-country collaboration among sectors, and to ensure that national contingency plans are harmonized and aligned to the SADC regional HPAI control strategy.
The disease does not select, it hits everything in its way
Avian Influenza is a virus of birds causing illness and death not only in domesticated birds, but also in wild birds. When an outbreak occurs, it becomes difficult to contain as it spreads rapidly through poultry flocks. Avian influenza can spread through direct contact between susceptible and infected birds, or contact with their secretions and excretions such as respiratory discharges or faeces. The disease can also spread through contaminated feed, equipment, clothing and footwear.
It attacks both free-range family poultry and intensively reared birds on large-scale commercial production sites with the same lethal results. As such, its emergence for the first time within the region should jerk all stakeholders into collective action, as it also knows no national borders.
Commercial producers are particularly affected as they bear the brunt of the economic losses that are likely to obtain. However, the impacts are far reaching as the commercial poultry industry provides employment and supplies day old chicks to smallholder poultry keepers, most table eggs and poultry meat. As such, any shock to this industry would have far reaching consequences including job losses, shortages of poultry food products in the markets and food price increases.
The likelihood of new outbreaks of Avian Influenza in the region remains high. 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.
Everyone (including consumers) should be aware of the potential of avian influenza virus to cause disease and death in domestic poultry, as well as how it can be transmitted. Some strains of the Avian Influenza virus have the potential to become infectious to humans although the H5N8 Virus currently reported in Southern Africa has not been known to affect human health. It is of paramount importance to always adhere to the advice, instructions and precautions issued by the competent authorities.
Chimimba David Phiri is the Sub-Regional Coordinator for Southern Africa – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Moetapele Letshwenyo is the Sub Regional Representative for Southern Africa – World Organisation for Animal Health.