The Wider Cost of Zimbabwe’s Bird Flu Outbreak

In June 2017, reports of a highly contagious strain of avian flu in Zimbabwe triggered import bans from other countries in southern Africa. Tawanda Karombo reports from Harare on an outbreak that threatens to turn into a crisis for the region’s poultry industry.
calendar icon 4 August 2017
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Zimbabwe is scrambling to contain the spread of an outbreak of H5N8 bird flu. The southern-African country’s neighbours – Mozambique, Botswana and South Africa – have moved to stop shipments of chicken products from Harare, whose poultry industry has now been placed under scrutiny.

The highly pathogenic influenza strain was reported at a large poultry operation owned by chicken and egg producers Irvines. The company has since had to cull and destroy all 140,000 birds at the poultry farm, in line with the requirements set by veterinary authorities in Zimbabwe.

In a statement, the company said that it had “identified and contained a form of avian influenza on an isolated site that it owns outside Harare” and had responded by “placing the affected site” under quarantine. “The entire flock that was affected has been culled and disposed of in accordance with relevant veterinary requirements,” it said.

The outbreak is thought to have already killed about 7,000 birds before the corrective measures were put in place. While it appears that the company has managed to contain the outbreak, Zimbabwe’s neighbouring countries have already instituted bans to prevent contagion spreading across the region.

Botswana, a close trade partner of Zimbabwe’s, was the first to cancel all poultry import permits issued to Zimbabwean exporters. Botswana also strictly controls cattle movements across its border with Zimbabwe, whose livestock were recently struck by a foot-and-mouth outbreak.

In early June Letlhogile Modisa, the director of veterinary services for Botswana’s Ministry of Agriculture, advised that permits for poultry imports from Zimbabwe had been cancelled. He also said Botswana had stopped importing poultry feed stocks from Harare.

“As a result, the import of domesticated and wild birds, their products (meat, eggs, feathers etc) and poultry feed from Zimbabwe is banned with immediate effect,” Modisa announced in a government statement on 6 June. “All permits issued or importing the listed items are cancelled with immediate effect. The documents are to be returned to the nearest veterinary office.”

Botswana fears that an outbreak of bird flu would decimate its small poultry producers,in a market in which the larger producers already have an unfair advantage. According to a study by the Botswana Competition Authority, there is unfair dominance by the larger chicken producers in the country and experts say any new burden thanks to the spread of the outbreak in Zimbabwe to Botswana could put the small-scale producers out of business.

Among the biggest poultry companies in Botswana are Tswana Pride, a broiler chicken grower that runs an abattoir, and Richmark, a joint venture between South Africa’s Pioneer and local firm Brink Holdings. Tswana Pride produces brined chicken and ordinary chicken meat while Richmark is involved in broiler production.

The Botswana Competition Authority said: “The study revealed that ownership in the poultry sector is unique and complex. The largest poultry producers in Botswana have ties to South African producers, and domestic producers are no match to these huge firms at the breeder and processing levels.”

Further worsening the Zimbabwean avian influenza situation are reports that the outbreak possibly originated from migratory waterfowl. There is a small dam near the Irvines operation where the bird flu strain has been reported, and there are fears that the virus may also have already spread to small-scale commercial poultry farms in the area.

Rainfall in Zimbabwe has been particularly heavy this year, and this makes migratory patterns for waterfowl complex, veterinary experts in the country have warned.

“The affected site is close to a small dam where there are a number of different migratory waterfowl, which are tentatively suspected to be [the] source of infection,” said a Zimbabwe Veterinary Services report, which was quoted by the World Organisation for Animal Health.

Mozambique has also banned poultry products and eggs from Zimbabwe in the light of the outbreak. Mozambique’s National Veterinary Directive (DINAV) said that domestic poultry, wild birds, day-old chicks, hatching eggs, fresh meat from birds and all derivatives intended for use in animal feed from Zimbabwe would no longer be admitted into the country.

“Wild birds are a source of transmission of this flu. We, and mainly our poultry producers, must step up our vigilance in our production units. All cases of mortality must be notified immediately, so that we can take measures in good time,” said Mozambique’s national veterinary director, Americo Conceicao.

The Mozambican authorities have cautioned that the avian flu virus is easily transmittable from one poultry operation to another through contaminated feeds, human interaction, equipment and transport vehicles, among other agents.

Following Botswana and Mozambique, South Africa has become the latest country to ban poultry imports from Zimbabwe. On Thursday 8 June, having previously said they were monitoring the situation, the South African authorities put an embargo in place.

In general, the situation has been worsened by large volumes of human traffic between Zimbabwe and its neighbours, and travellers’ poor access to information may result in their moving contaminated poultry products across borders unknowingly.

“That is also a big risk and this is why Mozambique, Botswana and South Africa have taken such measures. At our operations, we have had to take extra measures such as limiting access to production sites and upping biosecurity measures,” a manager at Irvines said.

The poultry avian influenza outbreak has increased the constraints producers in Zimbabwe are facing. These range from rising production costs to illegal imports and high taxes.

Solomon Zawe of the Zimbabwe Poultry Producers Association has said that breeder chick retentions and growing birds in the first quarter of 2017 were 18 percent and 16 percent lower than the same period last year respectively.

“The number of birds processed and broiler meat production in the formal sector in the first quarter of 2017 was 3 percent and 6 percent lower than the same period in 2016, respectively. Wholesale prices have continued to firm over the past nine months with the whole-bird price increasing from a four-year low of ZWD 2.74 in July 2016 to ZWD 3.25 in March 2017,” Zawe said.

This article was originally published in the July 2017 edition of The Poultry Site Digital. For more, read other articles from the issue by clicking here.

August 2017

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