Clarion call to avert potential disaster
Avian flu is affecting Africa and a concerted regional approach is needed to manage it, write Chimimba David Phiri and Moetapele Letshwenyo
THE FIRST confirmation of outbreaks of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in southern Africa (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 subregion.
The potential losses due to the devastating nature of the disease and its negative impact on trade in poultry are a further blow in a region struggling to recuperate from the effects of consecutive droughts and other emerging high-impact, transboundary crop pests and animal diseases, such as the fall armyworm and foot and mouth disease.
Poultry is relatively cheap, easily accessible and a high-quality source of protein. Poultry production presents livelihoods opportunities, particularly for rural women and youth.
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 at national and regional level.
The manner and effectiveness with which the outbreak is managed will determine the severity of the losses to the subregion. As such, the time to act is now.
The clarion call is for all countries in the subregion, those infected and those that are at risk of infection, to move swiftly and in co-ordinated manner to control the disease.
Failing to do so could see the region relapsing into further food and income insecurity, and losing the gains made in recent years.
The outbreak of avian flu was predictable after some countries in north, west and east 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 the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) in February, experts and delegates were warned about the 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 meeting could not be a panacea to the outbreak, it served as a reminder of the risk and remains the most compelling starting point for the region to respond to the outbreak.
Responding to the avian flu 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 bird flu.
One way of doing this is to strengthen HPAI surveillance in domestic poultry and wild bird populations. This could be achieved by further capacitating national structures, based on contingency plans that were developed many years ago in response to the pandemic and are modelled on response plans that have been effective in monitoring and containing transboundary pests and diseases.
Furthermore, it is also important for all countries in the subregion to have early-warning or alert systems that are functional. The systems enable policy makers to take quick action and to trigger timely and appropriate responses, based on accurate and timely information.
HPAI’s recent emergence as well as that of the fall armyworm late last year through to this year, have revealed that most countries did not have updated contingency plans.
The perennial emergence of new pests and diseases is another strong call for updating contingency plans at national and regional level.
It is also important to review legal frameworks, strengthen regional co-ordination and in-country collaboration among sectors, and to ensure that national contingency plans are harmonised and aligned to the SADC’s HPAI control strategy.
The disease does not select; it hits everything in its way.
Avian flu is a virus that affects birds, leading to illness and death in domesticated birds and wild birds.
When an outbreak occurs, it becomes difficult to contain as it spreads rapidly through poultry flocks. Avian flu 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 free-range family poultry and intensively reared birds on largescale commercial production sites with the same lethal results. As such, its emergence for the first time in 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 any economic losses.
However, the impact is 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 the 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 in the region remains high.
However, producers can protect susceptible poultry flocks by strengthening biosecurity measures. 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, and that includes consumers, should be aware of the potential of the avian flu virus to cause disease and death in domestic poultry.
Everyone should know how it is transmitted. Some strains 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. Phiri is the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation subregional co-ordinator for Southern Africa. Letshwenyo is a World Organisation for Animal Health subregional representative for southern Africa