HARARE – A deadly virus has hit the country’s largest poultry producer, Irvine’s — forcing the company to slaughter more than 140 000 chickens as it fights to contain the avian flu which it says will cause market shortages.
The avian flu outbreak has already seen Zimbabwe’s neighbours, Mozambique and Botswana, cancelling all chicken imports from the country — as they step up efforts to avoid contagion effects of the lethal virus.
With chicken having overtaken beef as the main protein source among long-suffering Zimbabweans because of its competitive pricing, panicking authorities announced yesterday that they would escalate their surveillance of the key poultry industry — warning that if the avian flu spreads to small-scale chicken producers, it would become increasingly difficult to control the situation.
The government also admitted yesterday that backyard poultry producers posed a significant threat to the containment of the virus.
“The small producers who are engaged in backyard production cannot be covered fully,” principal director in the Department of Livestock and Veterinary Services, Unesu Ushewokunze-Obatolu, told the Daily News.
“But there is no reason to panic because the virus has so far not shown any risk to humans.
“Still, we are advising the public to buy their supplies from licenced outlets where the health of birds is monitored.
“All these systems are there for the protection of the public . . . who should go to licenced outlets so that they are covered,” Ushewekunze-Obatolu added.
She said the government had also stepped up its monitoring of smuggled chickens, adding that a ban on chicken imports had also been effected.
“We don’t currently allow the importation of chickens. If there is any, then that would be the result of smuggling, which is illegal.
“At the same time, we are not ourselves exporting either. Our only slight worry is that we may have scared our neighbours by issuing the virus alert,” Ushewekunze-Obatolu told the Daily News.
Meanwhile, the country’s biggest poultry producer has also advised the market about the deadly outbreak of the avian flu — saying, however, that it had contained the flu.
It said the virus had killed about 7 000 chickens, leading the company to slaughter 140 000 birds as a precautionary measure, and as it sought to contain the spread of the virus.
Irvine’s affected site is close to a small dam, where there are a number of migratory waterfowl which are suspected to be the source of the current flu.
“Our cautious approach in dealing with the situation will result in short term supply issues and we respectfully ask that you bear with us during this period.
“Independent local and international laboratory tests have confirmed that there is no evidence that the strain of avian flu in the affected flock, which has been detected in other countries, poses any danger to humans and all poultry products may be safely consumed.
“Irvine’s encourages all poultry producers to be extra vigilant, avoid any contact with wild birds by keeping poultry indoors and to report any signs of disease to the Zimbabwe Veterinary Department,” the company said in a statement.
The Zimbabwe Poultry Association (ZPA) chairperson, Solomon Zawe, also warned that the outbreak of avian flu should not be treated as an isolated incident.
“It’s a wake-up call. If it can happen at a secure place like Irvine’s, why not anywhere else,” he said.
The National Veterinary Directorate of Mozambique said in a statement yesterday that although there had not been a human casualty from this type of virus, “it is necessary to observe bio-safety measures to avoid risks of contamination”.
On its part, Botswana has cancelled all import permits issued for importing domesticated and wild birds, as well as their products, from Zimbabwe.
The World Health Organisation has said that the possibility of human infection should not be excluded, although the probability is low.
Avian influenza, or avian flu, is a virus that occurs naturally among wild aquatic birds worldwide and affects domestic poultry and other birds and animal species.
The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe said yesterday that it was still carrying out investigations and would advise the public of its findings in due course.
Harare City Health director Prosper Chonzi said the city was also monitoring the situation “very closely”.
“This time of the year there are various flues . . . We should not panic until we have confirmed what is actually happening on the ground,” Chonzi said.
In the meantime, Harare City has been clamping down on unlicensed meat sellers and bush meat smugglers. It also recently set stringent by-laws that include six months’ imprisonment to those who do not conform to policies.
This comes as unregistered meat dealers, illegal slaughtering, and the sale of unhygienic meat has been on the rise in Zimbabwe as poverty levels have escalated and as the country’s economy has continued to die, putting consumers at risk of various food-borne illnesses.