The recent outbreaks of avian influenza, or bird flu in several countries in Europe and Asia as well as Canada, the United States of America, India, and several African countries, is still a cause for concern worldwide. This includes the following avian influenza virus strains: H5N1, H5N2, H5N6, H5N8, H5N9 and H7N7.
What Is The Situation In South Africa?
This highly virulent disease strain (H5N1) which caused the Asian Avian Flu, has never occurred in South Africa and the Poultry Association as well as the Port and Veterinary Public Health officials do everything to block the import of products from any country where the H5N1 strain has been detected. Trade with countries suspected of having the disease is restricted or closely monitored. Shipments sent prior to outbreaks will be tested at ports of entry.
In 2004 the H5N2 influenza virus related to the Asian H5N1 virus, was first detected in the Eastern Cape where some 2000 ostriches died of the virus. Since then several outbreaks have been reported with thousands of ostriches being culled to contain the diseases. The last reports of highly pathogenic avian influenza virus H5N2 in ostriches in South Africa were reported in 2013. During avian influenza outbreaks all exports of ostrich meat are immediately stopped as a precautionary measure and affected farms are quarantined and monitored. Ostriches and poultry are regularly monitored and tested for avian influenza viruses by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. All ostriches or poultry diagnosed with highly pathogenic avian influenza virus infections are culled under strict infection control measures to eradicate these viruses.
How Does Bird Flu Affect Humans?
Bird flu is not a food borne disease. The virus is transferred to humans via the respiratory tract and not by ingestion. The World Health Organization (WHO), United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization have compiled the following facts on bird flu.
What Is Bird / Avian Flu?
A form of influenza believed to affect all birds, though domestic poultry is believed to be especially prone to it. It can also infect humans in direct contact with sick birds causing severe pneumonia and death however it does not spread from human-to-human.
Where Is Bird / Avian Flu Found?
Outbreaks in poultry and wild birds are wide-spread and the following countries have reported outbreaks associated with highly pathogenic avian influenza virus H5N1 in recent years: Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Netherlands, USA, Canada, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, Europe.
How Many People Have Been Affected?
During avian influenza virus outbreaks in poultry, sporadic infections and small clusters of human cases are possible in people directly exposed to infected or sick poultry or contaminated environments. As mentioned before these viruses are not easily transmitted between people. Severe pneumonia and deaths in humans are primarily linked to the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain (n= 846) and the low pathogenic H7N9 strain that emerged in China in 2013 (n= 722). Human infections with H7N9 remain fairly localised in China. The following countries reported sporadic human cases and deaths due to H5N1 infections from 2003 to 2009: Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Canada, Djibouti, Iraq, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand and Turkey. Continued sporadic human infections and deaths due to H5N1 have been reported since 2003 to date in China, Cambodia, Egypt, Indonesia and Vietnam. All human cases of avian influenza infection are linked to contact with infected birds or contaminated environments like live bird markets, vendors and some commercial or breeding farms. For more current information and updates on avian influenza viruses please consult the World Health Organization (WHO) web site (http://www.who.int).
No human deaths related to avian influenza virus infection have been reported in South Africa.
How Is The Virus Transmitted?
Infected birds spread the virus through saliva, faeces and nasal secretions. So far, only humans with direct contact to sick birds have contracted the disease. Mixing between avian and human influenza viruses could possibly generate a new virus deadly influenza virus strain that easily transmits between humans and thus trigger a pandemic.
What Are The Symptoms In Birds?
Infection with highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses are characterised by the following: loss of appetite, ruffled feathers, fever, weakness, diarrhoea, excessive thirst, swelling and the mortality rate can range between 50 to 100%. Infection with low pathogenic avian influenza strains can continue unnoticed as it usually causes asymptomatic infections in poultry and birds.
Is There A Food Safety Risk?
There’s no evidence that the virus is being passed through eating chicken products. Heat kills the viruses, and the WHO recommends the following:
- chicken products should be cooked thoroughly at temperatures of at least 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit)
- people should wash their hands after handling poultry and ensure that poultry carcasses do not contaminate other objects
The FACS Message:
The facts remain, the only people at risk are those that directly handle infected or sick birds. The supply of poultry products in South Africa is controlled and safe and there are no immediate human health concerns.
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Updated for FACS by FTr (2016)