Dr Deon De Beer, an avian veterinarian, blames the low quality grain in the country for the outbreak of viruses.

Fear of another devastating bout of avian flu is causing concern after several penguins at Boulders Beach contracted the deadly virus.

“The grains that we as humans, as well as our livestock, consume is of such low quality that it compromises our immune systems. We are much more vulnerable to disease now than we were in the past,” said De Beer on analysing the outbreak.

State veterinarian and epidemiologist for the Department of Agriculture in the Western Cape, Dr Laura Roberts, said this week that three penguins tested positive for avian flu since 29 January 2018. “There are another ten that are suspected to have died of the disease, but were not tested,” she said.

Roberts said it is unclear how this particular strain of bird flu affects penguin populations. “Staff will continue to monitor the population, and testing of sick birds and carcasses will be done at intervals, to monitor for the presence of the disease.”

De Beer, who is also the founder of Bird Clinic, has said avian flu is something that is omnipresent. “It was here all the time.”

Dr Deon de Beer

According to him, the birds who suffer from avian flu are often symptomatic and when symptoms do show, they are often confused with other diseases until tested. Most commonly, avian flu may be confused with another avian disease called New Casle disease which is a viral disease that affects birds, but may also be passed on to humans.

“There were reports of a penguin treated for avian flu earlier this year,” De Beer said. “As a vet, this is very irresponsible. African penguins are endangered, and it is understandable that they want to save them, but the effect that the ‘cured’ bird may have on its colony may be unprecedented. We have no way of knowing if that particular penguin will still be a carrier for the avian flu virus. It may infect the rest of the colony, so saving that one bird could kill a thousand of its species.”

Bird flu affects different species of birds differently. For example, a chicken will die of avian flu much sooner than a duck will.

“There is a vaccine available for birds, but the danger of this vaccine is that it will create antibodies for avian flu. As soon as you vaccinate a bird, especially a bird like a chicken, which is typically used for for purposes, you close the door for exports,” De Beer said.

The antibodies created when a bird is vaccinated against avian flu may produce a false positive if the bird is tested for the virus.

“This affects food security,” he added.

De Beer says low quality grains is to blame for avian flu and the listeriosis outbreak as well.

Compromised immune systems makes contracting disease through cross-contamination much easier. Cooking a chicken that is infected with avian flu will effectively kill the virus, but what about the process of getting the chicken from the supermarket to the pot?

“We go to Supermarket X and pick up several chickens to find the right one. You pick up a packet of jelly beans at the till, and maybe you eat them on the drive home.  When you get home, you wash your hands, you put the chicken in the pot and you cook it. The boiling hot water you cooked the chicken in has killed the virus, but what about all the things you touched after handling the chicken at the fridges at Supermarket X?,” De Beer questioned.

“Normal people don’t buy chicken with gloves on to protect themselves, and they definitely don’t disinfect everything they touch. The virus from that chicken may be on the steering wheel of the car, in the boot where the chicken was placed as you drove home… These are the realities of cross-contamination.”

Avian flu is a volatile virus, De Beer said. The more cases of avian flu are reported and the more regular these cases occur, the bigger the chance the virus will mutate.

While the strain of avian flu that has affected African penguins (H5N8 strain) is unlikely to affect humans, this could change if the virus mutates.

De Beer maintains that the recent influx of disease in South Africa comes down to one simple thing: the low quality of grains in the country.

Picture: Pixabay and Bird Clinic

Article written by

Lucinda Dordley

Lucinda is a hard news writer who occasionally dabbles in lifestyle writing, and recent journalism graduate. She is a proud intersectional feminist, and is passionate about actively creating a world which is free of discrimination and inequality.