The East African Community (EAC), in collaboration with Kenya’s Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries, has issued guidelines to prevent and curb the spread of Avian flu, a killer poultry disease
While cases of bird flu have not yet been reported in East Africa, proximity to infected countries and importation of poultry products continue to pose as an imminent threat. East Africa is reportedly considered vulnerable, as it lies in the route of migratory birds and has many wetlands.
The disease mainly affects all kinds of poultry including chicken, ducks, geese, quails, turkey, pigeons, ostrich and even pet birds. It spreads to humans and can cause deaths, as seen in China and other South East Asian nations during recent times.
So far, the bird flu, known as the Avian Influenza outbreaks have been reported in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Nigeria, Djibouti and Sudan.
Western Cape department of agriculture deputy director (animal health), Pieter Koen, observed, “The virus has been spread by wild birds in the area. This does happen in the ostrich industry every winter.”
There are two forms of the infections in domestic birds- the low and high pathogenic forms.
Only visible through mild symptoms such as ruffled feathers and a drop in egg production, the low pathogenic form may easily go undetected.
However, the high pathogenic form spreads fast through poultry flocks affecting multiple internal organs within 48 hours and has a high mortality rate, approaching 100 per cent.
Recently, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned of the re-emergence of the disease with the approaching winter season in many countries in the northern hemisphere. FAO senior animal health officer Ian Douglas said, “We have over a decade of experience with the H5N1 Avian Influenza. Incidences have increased over the years. There is a possibility that the virus could re-emerge and become a more prevalent infection.”
Experts say the virus is spread in a number of ways, mainly through the introduction of infected birds into the flock, via contaminated feeds, equipment, cages, shoes and vehicle tyres.
Other instigators include contact of domesticated birds with their wild cousins.
Chicken and ducks that always roam the villages scratching on litter and insects come in direct contact with these wild birds.
The impact on the poultry sectors in Africa has been immense, as exports markets close with each outbreak.
An outbreak of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain in South Africa resulted in the European Union placing a ban on ostrich imports, resulting in a loss of over US$230mn to local farmers.
With this in mind, Kenya’s Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries and the FAO issued guidelines to farmers and other stakeholders on prevention and early detection of the disease.
Farmers are advised to purchase day-old chicks, feeds and eggs from reputable licensed distributors.
In managing the poultry unit, experts have prescribed a raft of measures. They include used of a footbath- a basin or a rug with a disinfectant at the entry of the poultry unit.
Wearing protective clothing such as gumboots and overalls while tending to poultry is important and all visitors to the poultry units must wear them to gain access.
Hygiene in the poultry house is paramount in controlling infections. Consequently, the poultry house should be cleaned and disinfected regularly; attendants should wash their hands with soap before and after tending the birds, according to the EAC.
It has been advised that manure should be composted before usage and litter should be burned or buried. Rats and other vice should be kept out of the poultry house.
It is also important to separate new birds from the flock for at least two weeks for observation. Wild birds should be kept off the poultry units –either through mesh wires or an appropriate poultry unit designs.
Finally, farmers are advised to report any unusual poultry deaths to the nearest veterinary office or government departments for action.
According to the FAO, the established control methods have involved culling and vaccinations in the case of the H5N1 virus. Better responses, however, will require tracking the birds from where they come and their intended destinations.
Ensuring that poultry markets adhere to sanitation guidelines has been recommended.
Regionally, the EAC, a council of ministers responsible for livestock, health, tourism, wildlife and information, has come up with an Avian Influenza Plan of Action
The council established an Animal Health Desk under the EAC Secretariat Structure to coordinate regional level activities for the prevention and control of trans-boundary animal diseases, including Avian Influenza.
An EAC technical working group on avian influenza comprising nine members was recently set up.