By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS
For the second time this year, Saudi Arabia has seen the bird flu rear its ugly head. The deadly H5N1 strain of the virus was found in ostriches living on a farm in the Al-Kharj region of the Kingdom in recent weeks and has seen the government since adopt a wide-ranging culling campaign to curb the spread of the disease. As of press time, approximately 36,000 ostriches have been culled. Since the beginning of the year when the first case of bird flu was detected in the Kingdom a total of 4 million birds have been culled. Fortunately, there has never been a case of a human being infected with the H5N1 virus in the Kingdom and has been confined to birds exclusively.
The recent outbreak of the bird flu in Saudi Arabia has forced GCC member-states, to think twice before allowing birds, poultry or eggs from Saudi Arabia into their respective countries. They have adopted and enforced a crippling ban on all Saudi Arabian imports. The biggest causalities under the ban so far have been Saudi Arabian eggs. Combined, Saudi Arabian (and Indian) eggs make up 50% of the egg market in the GCC. The ban, especially on eggs, has hit consumers in the Middle East hard with many consumers not even having eggs available on their breakfast tables. In Dubai, there is an estimated 85% shortage in the availability of eggs. The price of eggs has gone up by between 15-30% per tray, which is out of the price range for many expatriates. In Kuwait, there is also a noticeable shortage with eggs also rising in price by 25%.
Smaller GCC countries, like Dubai for example, have no choice but to rely on â€˜Big Brotherâ€™ Saudi Arabia for a continuous supply of eggs. The reason being is because local suppliers simply cannot keep up with supply and demand. In addition, the cost of feed for egg-laying chickens has seen a massive increase by almost 50% in price from suppliers. Many local egg producers have had to close up shop entirely while other larger producers are still operating albeit in the red.
It could be months before the Saudi Arabian government gives the all-clear that the H5N1 virus has been annihilated in the Kingdom and there are likely to be more bird cullings in the future to be sure the virus has been eradicated. In the meantime, consumers in the GCC will have no choice but to pay the hefty prices for eggs as long as supplies hold out. Once supplies are exhausted there is no telling if eggs will even be available in the Middle East. Perhaps, GCC countries will have to start importing dried egg powder, which can be reconstituted with water or even â€˜egg beatersâ€™ brand egg alternative to meet the demands of their populous. Regardless, not having omelets for breakfast is small sacrifice to make to ensure that the bird flu does not take hold in the Middle East and threaten the lives of humans.