Poultry production in Zimbabwe and its neighbours is under threat from the outbreak of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), which is commonly referred to as the bird flu, the Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned.
Outbreaks of the disease are threatening the livelihoods and food security status of millions of families in the region and experts said remedial action to fully exterminate the bird flu must be quickly implemented.
"If not tackled quickly, the HPAI outbreak impedes trade opportunities and will reverse the gains made in enhancing food and nutrition security," FAO said.
Experts and policy makers from Southern Africa met last week in South Africa to assess preparedness, share information and explore both immediate and longer-term response actions.
FAO sub-regional coordinator for Southern Africa, David Phiri, said poultry was important to the economy and livelihoods of the region.
"Poultry production is a major source of income for many, particularly rural women and youth," Phiri said.
In Zimbabwe the disease has so far been detected at Lanark farm, which has suffered two outbreaks.
Lanark, a commercial poultry producer 25 km south of Harare, was hit for the second time by the flu last week after it was first reported in early June.
The government announced that the farm would be under quarantine for three months.
Depopulation has already taken place in affected countries in the region. South Africa has so far culled over 800 000 birds, while Zimbabwe has killed approximately 215 000 birds.
South Africa is destroying one million eggs a day from the affected farms. Small-scale producers are also expected to face shortages of day old chicks in the market as a result.
Commercial poultry production has grown significantly in the region in recent decades.
In South Africa, one of the countries affected, the gross poultry income in 2016 was more than $3,5 billion.
FAO said that the poultry industry in the SADC region, with a population of over 380 million birds, was the largest contributor to the region's agriculture sector.
The United Nations agency has deployed a technical mission to Zimbabwe to assist in dealing with the outbreak.
SADC representative, Bentry Chaura, said the bird flu had come at a time when the region was still struggling to recover from the EL Niño induced humanitarian food shortages of the 2015/2016 season, which was further worsened by the emergence of other pests such as the fall armyworm which devastated crops this year.
"We are all witnesses of what animal diseases and pests, particularly trans boundary animal diseases, can do to worsen the vulnerability of rural based communities. Those do not only affect lives in the community but also normally have a lasting impact on local, regional and international trade," said Chaura.
In addition to Zimbabwe and South Africa, the flu has also been reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In Zimbabwe and South Africa, the disease has mainly been identified on large commercial farms, where systems to monitor outbreaks are readily in place compared to smallholder and backyard producers.
Bird flu outbreaks have been looming across the region since the beginning of the year when Uganda reported an outbreak.
SADC has urged member States to develop the capacity for surveillance, detection, prevention, and rapid response to HPAI.
Countries are now expected to review recommendations from experts and agree on practical and time bound actions projected to bring quick control of the disease. This is expected to minimise its impact on food and nutrition security, livelihoods and economic development.
Since the first outbreak in the region in May 2017, member States have implemented a series of actions including quarantine and importation bans of poultry and poultry products from affected countries and increased awareness.