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Avian flu

As South Africans are dealing with new strains of Covid-19 and a recent measles outbreak, escalating cases of avian flu (sometimes known as bird flu) have gripped the nation, with the government taking action to fast-track vaccination efforts.

This is what we currently know about the virus as sourced by reliable authorities such as National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

What is Avian flu?

Avian influenza is a disease usually carried in wild birds. These viruses occur naturally among wild aquatic birds but can infect domestic poultry and other bird and animal species.

Most wild birds can be infected with avian influenza viruses and not get sick, but if poultry get infected, they may get very sick and die.

Avian influenza strains can cause disease in humans but this is rare. Avian influenza strains that have caused disease in humans are ‘influenza A(H5N1)’ and ‘influenza A(H7N9)’.

Can Avian flu spread to humans?

As noted above, avian flu can rarely cause disease in humans and avian influenza viruses do not normally spread from person-to-person. However, occasional human infections with avian influenza viruses have occurred.

Infection occurs most often through direct unprotected contact with infected birds. That is why it is important for those in the poultry sector to wear gloves, protective wear, facemasks and eye protection. People can become infected by breathing in virus droplets in the air or dust, or by touching an infected bird or surfaces contaminated with infected bird mucous, saliva or faeces and then touching their eyes, mouth or nose.

What are the symptoms of avian flu in humans?

Signs and symptoms of avian flu infections have ranged from no symptoms or mild influenza-like illness, to severe pneumonia requiring hospitalisation, and in rare cases, death. Symptoms may include fever, coughing, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headaches, fatigue, red eyes (conjunctivitis) and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

Who are most at risk?

People who have close contact with birds, especially poultry, or contaminated environments are most at risk of infection, such as veterinarians and farm workers.

What is the South African government doing?

In a statement released on Monday, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DLARRD) announced its commitment to expediting the registration and deployment of vaccines in a bid to curb the spread of avian influenza.

DLARRD said it would be collaborating with vaccine registration regulators and expressed its determination to streamline the vaccine registration process.

Furthermore, the DLARRD has already taken steps to assist the broiler industry by importing fertile eggs.

The H5 variant of avian influenza has gained dominance in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal regions. This led to the culling of nearly 1.3 million birds due to its devastating impact.

Gauteng is deemed as the epicentre of the newly identified, highly virulent H7 strain.

According to the South African Poultry Association (SAPA), this strain is unlike any other worldwide and is responsible for outbreaks emerging in Limpopo, Northwest, Free State, and Mpumalanga.

More than 1.4 million birds have succumbed to the H7 strain.

As of September 21, the country is grappling with a total of 50 H7 outbreaks and 10 H5 outbreaks, with a staggering 37 H7 cases concentrated in Gauteng alone.

The South African government has made it abundantly clear that there will be no compromise on vaccine safety and quality, given the potential for the disease to spread to humans.