PRETORIA  –  Poultry producers in South Africa are working to contain an outbreak of H5N8 avian influenza that has hit the country’s largest agricultural industry.

Since October, the South African Dept. of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) has confirmed the virus at 92 locations including 25 commercial poultry operations. The outbreak has claimed 3.2 million birds, the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) of the US Dept. of Agriculture in its poultry and products annual report from South Africa. The outbreak comes just as South African poultry producers are recovering from a drought that contributed to a 3 percent decline in broiler production in 2016.

South Africa is a regional poultry production powerhouse, accounting for 80 percent of broiler production in Southern Africa. The industry is valued at R$37 billion ($2.8 billion) and contributes 15 percent to the total gross value of agricultural products, according to FAS.

In June, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) published notification of an avian influenza outbreak in a breeder flock in South Africa, and 5,000 birds were culled. Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe suspended poultry and poultry product imports from South Africa. Combined, these countries represented 71 percent of South African poultry meat exports in 2016. Namibia recently relaxed its import ban to allow poultry and poultry products from certain areas approved by DAFF to be free of avian influenza.

“A system was introduced to allow for movement of healthy live chickens for purposes other than for slaughter,” DAFF said in a statement. “Provincial Veterinary Services issued health attestations for small scale farmers and distributors of live chickens and the Poultry Disease Management Agency (PDMA) was authorized by DAFF to register and keep records of all parties selling and buying live chickens. This has so far been effective to prevent the spread of the disease to small scale farmers and backyard breeders on a large scale.”

DAFF also is considering a vaccination strategy, which could limit the impact of the outbreaks in the short term, but could negatively impact poultry exports. “An exit strategy to withdraw vaccination once the threat of HPAI is passed is also under discussion,” the agency said.

FAS is forecasting South Africa’s broiler meat exports will drop 19 percent to 60,000 tons in 2017, and to remain flat in 2018. Imports of poultry products are expected to climb 4 percent to 525,000 tons this year and 2 percent (535,000) in 2018. Broiler meat accounts for 95 percent of all poultry meat imports by South Africa, according FAS.