South Africa not at greater risk of bird flu, says Poultry Association

[Source: Business Day Newspaper, 30 March 2006]

By Neels Blom

SA's poultry industry has strongly criticised the view taken by a technical committee of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that the country is at greater risk from avian-flu transmission via poultry products than its neighbours. "It is bad science," the Southern African Poultry Association's science spokesman, Bruce Alan Johnson, said yesterday during the association's annual congress in Boksburg, Gauteng. "It creates the wrong emphasis and diverts concern away from the biggest transmission risk, which is migratory birds." Avian influenza, caused by the H5N1 virus carried by wild birds, has infected poultry flocks in 46 countries.

Millions of birds have been culled in an effort to stop the disease spreading to humans. About 100 people have died from the disease so far. Global health concerns are that the virus might mutate into a strain that can be transmitted from human to human, triggering a global pandemic. Johnson said it was not true that bird migratory routes did not include southern Africa. Two intercontinental migrations occur over southern Africa, one of which originated in Central Asia, which is an infected area. "Avian flu can strike anywhere, anytime. It is totally unpredictable," he said.

The director of the African Union's intra-African bureau of animal resources, Mudibo Traure, said at a SADC technical committee meeting that the spread of avian flu into southern Africa was more likely to be a result of trade in poultry products than from migratory birds. That would put SA at particular risk. The country imports 211000 tons of chicken a week, of a total of 825000 of broilers slaughtered for commerce.

The South African poultry industry is the second-biggest in the agricultural sector after the maize industry. Poultry producer turnover came to R11,2bn last year. SA produces more than 85% of the poultry output in the SADC region. Mike Modisane of the agriculture department said it was the department's impression that Traure's statement was "comparative", and not intended to diminish the risk of transmission from migratory birds. "The point Traure made was that, relatively speaking, SA imported more poultry than any other SADC country, which means that the risk had increased," he said.

The idea was not to disregard risk from migration, Modisane said, "but import protocols are within government's control and we have tightened them", he said. "Now we have to take care not to tighten the controls so much that importers bring in their products illegally." Johnson emphasised the importance of surveillance in the prevention of a flu outbreak. He expressed satisfaction with the industry's state of preparedness.


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