Avian Influenza Outbreak in South Africa

As the general public is largely aware there is an ongoing ‘highly pathogenic avian influenza’ (HPAI) outbreak in South Africa of the strain H5N1. The outbreak began in the north-east of the country and has now spread through migratory birds to poultry flocks in the Western Cape. So far there have been some 34 reports submitted to the World Animal Health Organisation, 10 in wild birds. It can therefore be assumed that the virus is countrywide. This is the first time this strain has reached sub-Saharan Africa, but there are also currently outbreaks in West Africa.

The avian influenza viruses are common and include many strains. The natural reservoir of the viruses are the aquatic birds such as shore birds, waders and sea birds and these are largely unaffected. Only some strains are classified as ‘highly pathogenic’ or HPAI for short. It should be noted that the term ‘highly pathogenic’ refers only to 4-8 week old chicks with a 75% death rate and not to any other species. How serious the virus is varies enormously between different bird species. The last time there was an outbreak of significance in South Africa was 2017 with another HPAI strain called H5N8. This strain has never been known to infect humans. The current strain H5N1 has infected humans, but it is extremely rare to do so. In fact since 2003 there have only ever been 700 cases, and these were mostly in communities where people have closely cohabited with their infected poultry, and from the cultural consumption of raw chicken meat and even blood.

As far as St Helena is concerned, the risk is primarily to our poultry flocks and other resident birds of note such as seabirds and the endemic Wirebird, although the latter two categories should in theory be little affected. The mode of spread could only be through the importation of eggs and raw poultry meat from South Africa, as apart from the occasional vagrant bird such as cattle egrets, the Island is not on any migratory routes.

The St Helena Resilience Forum met to discuss a comprehensive veterinary risk assessment and agreed on certain actions to protect the Island. Although the risk is slight, the precautionary principal is being applied, and certain poultry products are being banned from importation.

What is being banned?

After the unloading of the MV Helena on Voyage 42, ETA Sunday, 11 July 2021, the following will be banned until further notice:

(a)       All bird eggs whether entire or without shell

(b)       All raw meat of all bird species

(c)        All raw offal of all bird species.

This applies only to the above products (i) originating from, (ii) produced in, or (iii) repackaged in South Africa.

The ban does not include commercially packaged pre-cooked chicken or cooked chicken products such as may be included as an ingredient in canned goods, pizzas, pies etc.

The epidemic is expected to wax and wane with the seasonal migration of birds, but the situation will be monitored and the ban removed only once the spread of disease is clearly under control.

Why is the landing of these goods for the next MV Helena being permitted?

These goods on the next MV Helena voyage are being permitted to land because of what are called ‘mitigating factors’ that make them currently low risk:

  • Frozen chicken meat is generally processed well in advance, and it is likely that for the vast majority of Voyage 42 imports this will have preceded the spread of H5N1 in South Africa
  • In addition, H5N1 in poultry is so virulent that it cannot go unnoticed in commercial establishments bar the brief incubation period, so it is extremely unlikely that products from infected premises have reached market, and if they have, only in very limited quantities
  • Furthermore, unlike beef and lamb, chicken meat is not eaten part cooked but well cooked, and indeed always should be because of common bacterial contamination
  • The virus is fragile and highly susceptible to disinfectants, is rapidly and easily destroyed by ordinary chlorinated tap water, and is also inactivated by heat. In fact heating chicken meat up to just 70°C destroys it in less than four seconds
  • Eggs are a different story. They arrive fresh, not frozen, and are often cooked in a way that they are still semi-raw when consumed. Contamination is mainly on the exterior of the egg. However, imported eggs are generally washed with chlorinated water so that this is minimised. Again, heat also inactivates the virus.

Why are these products being banned after Voyage 42?

Because, like all epidemics, it is expected that the cases in South Africa will rise and the risk of introduction onto the Island, while currently low, will increase. St Helena Government is taking a cautious approach.

What routine precautions can be taken?

The following is advised:

  1. Hands should always be washed after preparing raw poultry meat
  2. Kitchen surfaces and chopping boards should always be washed down and thoroughly cleaned after the preparation of raw poultry meat
  3. Poultry meat should always be well cooked
  4. Wash imported South African eggs prior to cracking (with chlorinated tap water if available). This is not necessary if being prepared as a boiled egg
  5. South African eggs should be well cooked and at least well heated through
  6. Egg shells, discarded eggs and raw poultry meat of South African origin should be bagged and the bag tied before disposal in the wheelie bin to minimise scavenging by mynah birds
  7. Egg shells, discarded eggs and raw poultry meat of South African origin should not be fed to pigs in kitchen waste as swill
  8. Egg shells fed to poultry as a source of calcium should first be baked in the oven.

Inevitably, the ban on these products will result in some inconvenience to the general public and to merchants, and you are thanked for your cooperation in helping to protect our Island.

If you require further information please contact:

Alternatively, both officers can be contacted on telephone 24724.

#StHelena #AvianInfluenza #AltogetherHealthier


23 June 2021

St Helena Government Communications Hub

Telephone: 22470
Email: communications@sainthelena.gov.sh