Zim must quickly contain bird flu

HARARE - A strain of avian influenza virus has now been found in Zimbabwe.

The highly pathogenic H5N8 strain is capable of causing death among humans and inflicting serious losses on poultry farmers.

The bird flu has been detected in a chicken breeder flock on a Harare farm, and 140 000 birds have been culled to stop the virus from entering the food system.

This represents the first confirmed case of the deadly avian influenza in commercial poultry in the country.

The latest bird flu outbreak in Harare was first seen in the death last week of 7 000 birds at a large agricultural concern in the business of producing chickens, table eggs and day-old chicks.

The company has incurred heavy losses, forced to cull a significant part of its total poultry population, raising the spectre of pushing egg and chicken prices to record highs and could prompt trading partners to ban imports of Zimbabwean poultry.

The agricultural concern exports Cobb and H&N parent stock to over a dozen countries, including Malawi, Mozambique, Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Botswana, Angola and Namibia. In addition, table eggs are shipped to Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and the DRC and frozen chickens are exported to South Africa, Malawi and Mozambique using the company’s own refrigerated lorries.

Chickens and eggs are a large generator of cash receipts in agriculture for the State.

So far, thank heavens, no people have been affected in this outbreak.

As a major agricultural nation with a fairly large poultry industry, Zimbabwe has implemented an action plan formulated by the Agriculture ministry’s Department of Livestock and Veterinary Services to deal with the outbreak.

It incorporates a clear protocol for preventive checks, including depopulating and imposing stringent sanitary measures and testing.

The Agriculture ministry must do more like temporarily ban the transportation of poultry nationwide. 

Precautions must include disinfecting all vehicles entering the company farm and banning all nonessential visitor access to its operations.

Sales of chicken offal that had become rife must be halted pronto given the potential of this deadly disease spreading to humans. The practices of home de-feathering and removing chicken guts increase the exposure to potentially contaminated parts of a chicken.

This outbreak will severely test the efficiency of the cash-strapped government’s intervention strategy.

The H5N8 virus has been identified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the animal influenza virus of greatest concern for human health.

Given that it metamorphoses rapidly, the need for attentive supervision against it and it’s likely spread cannot be overstated.

The government’s finding that the virus associated with the bird deaths at the huge concern is the H5N8 type hints at the possible role of migratory water fowl, which are known to be the major vectors of this virus.

As stated by Department of Livestock and Veterinary Services principal director, Unesu Ushewokunze-Obatolu, the exact source is thought to be wild ducks and geese in a nearby water body, which is being investigated. Time is of essence here in unmasking the source.

On the positive side, the national plan to combat the outbreak so far seems to be adequate, with the relevant agencies with all hands on deck.

The effectiveness of the methods naturally depends on the enthusiasm with which the animal husbandry apparatus at the State level collects samples and sounds the alarm when there is risk the disease is spreading.

There is a case to prioritise and tighten the functioning of this machinery, given the impact on people and agriculture.

Borders have a particularly important responsibility to look out for sick birds.

Public health messaging, with advice on poultry consumption in this time of outbreak, is essential to quell any rumours.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the WHO, cooking of poultry including chicken, ducks, geese, turkeys and guinea-fowl at or above 70°Celsius throughout the product, so that absolutely no meat remains raw and red, is a safe measure to kill the bird flu virus.

And everyone is warned, the highly pathogenic virus can also be found inside and on the surface of eggs laid by infected birds.Zim must quickly contain bird flu

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