SOUTH AFRICA – The South African Poultry Association (Sapa) has updated the Portfolio Committee on Agriculture, Land Reform, and Rural Development, estimating that the latest Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreaks have significantly impacted 30% of the South African poultry industry.

This latest outbreak has led to the culling of approximately 7.5 million birds.

The outbreak involved strains of H5N1 and H7N6 of HPAI, with potential losses for the poultry industry exceeding R1.8 billion, which is comparable to the losses experienced during the previous HPAI outbreaks in 2019, which led to the culling of three million birds.

Sapa’s General Manager for the broiler organization, Izaak Breitenbach, has estimated the losses to be approximately R3 billion.

This estimate was based on the 30% impact on the industry, which equates to about 30% of its annual revenue of roughly R12 billion.

The H7N6 strain of the virus was initially reported in June on a farm in Mpumalanga. While it is less deadly than the H5N1 counterpart and spreads more slowly, it has still had a significant impact on the local poultry industry.

Additionally, the H7N6 strain in South Africa is not closely related to other AI strains worldwide, which limits the efficacy of existing vaccines against South African strains.

Efforts to develop locally produced vaccines are in progress, but this process will take some time to complete.

Sapa anticipated that the poultry industry would be reduced to approximately 17.3 million layer hens by early 2024, a significant drop from 27.6 million layer hens in 2019 and 27.4 million in 2022.

Recovery of lost production is expected to take about 17 months, with a focus on recouping the 30% impact next year.

The majority of South African poultry production relies on caged operations (95%), making the industry particularly vulnerable to disease spread due to the proximity between birds.

Despite reported cases of HPAI declining in October compared to September, concerns have risen due to a new case of the H7N6 virus in George, Western Cape, which raises the possibility of another outbreak.

Sapa suggested that fast-tracked approval of HPAI vaccines and importation of fertile hatchery eggs are key actions to mitigate further losses in the poultry industry.

Importation of liquid and powdered eggs for industrial use in bakeries, rather than shell eggs, could increase the availability of shell eggs for consumers.

The association also advocated for the creation of a disaster fund to assist farmers who have incurred substantial financial losses due to HPAI.

Currently, South Africa is evaluating the safety and efficacy of developed vaccines, particularly for H5 and H7 strains.

According to SAPA, the use of vaccines may lead to lower fatality rates and fewer cullings, although it is essential to manage the risk of HPAI mutations and potential impacts on humans and other mammals.

Sapa is also in favour of compensating producers for culling and supporting stricter adherence to basic biosecurity measures among poultry farmers.