The movement of highly contagious animal diseases, including foot-and-mouth, across swathes of Central Asia poses a serious threat to the region, and ultimately to Europe and China. While the UK and some of its neighbours are in the grips of a foot-and-mouth crisis, unless urgent action is taken against epidemics currently moving unchecked in Central Asia, Europe’s situation could further destabilise, a leading animal health expert with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned.
Peter Roeder told IRIN that although he expected the current outbreak in the UK to be controlled within six months, it could be reignited by viruses coming in from Asia.
“Central Asia is a back door into Europe. The Russians are worried that if foot-and-mouth in Kazakhstan spreads, they will get the virus. The Russian Federation has been free from the disease for many years, and if it gets rampant and widespread in Russia, it is only a short step to Central and Eastern Europe.
“Because of the problems of controlling trade in Europe, it is very easy for the virus to gain access to the European Union and to cause the sort of outbreaks that we have seen in Britain,” Roeder said. China and its huge livestock population - cattle, sheep and goats - was also at risk with an eastwards movement of the disease from Kazakhstan, he added.
Central Asia remains more susceptible to trans-boundary animal diseases, because there are no measures in place to prevent viruses from spreading. The former Soviet republics are unused to recognising or coping with such epidemics. Their veterinary services are at an all-time low due to a lack of resources and a breakdown of infrastructure following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Three major epidemic diseases currently pose a serious threat to Pakistan, Afghanistan and to the Central Asia republics: foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), rinderpest and peste des petits ruminants.
The huge numbers of livestock in Central Asia remain an extremely fertile breeding ground for FMD and other epidemics capable of evolving and generating new strains of virus. Foot-and-mouth, which is transported via droplets from the breath, causes blisters in the mouth and teats, lameness, secondary infections and loss of claws and hooves. Young lambs, pigs, kids and calves are particularly susceptible to the virus, which wipes out the heart muscle.
FMD continues to move unchecked throughout the region. According to the FAO, there are waves of the disease moving through the population all the time, with “plenty of potential for increased epidemics and deterioration of the current situation”.
The disease is endemic to Pakistan, according to expert. It will move between populations and suddenly cause a “flare-up”. An outbreak two months ago in southern Baluchistan Province is still evolving, and the FAO is working to determine the exact areas of infection.
The disease is not expected to move as rapidly as it has in Europe, however. FMD does not last long in hot, dry climates like Pakistan’s with strong ultra-violet light, which inhibits the disease. Moreover, pigs, which are a highly infectious carrier, are not bred in Pakistan.
Government officials in Pakistan do not consider FMD a threat. Pakistan’s Food, Agriculture and Livestock Secretary, Hafeez Akhter, told IRIN there were no fears of FMD spreading in the country, and historically “only a few cases” had been reported. However, Roeder said FMD was extremely serious for individual farmers in Pakistan, who fear a chronic drop in milk production and loss of livestock.
“If you go to Sind and talk to the buffalo dairy farmers there, they are desperate to get protection against FMD, and they actually pay for imported vaccine, which costs as much as US $3 a dose, twice a year,” he added.
The second major disease of concern is rinderpest. Pakistan is one of only three remaining pockets in the world to suffer from this highly contagious disease, which is similar to measles in humans and capable of virtually wiping out cattle and buffalo herds. It represents one of the most dreaded diseases for the veterinary profession. The death of an infected animal usually occurs from severe dehydration five to 15 days after the first appearance of symptoms, such as loss of milk, sores in the mouth, and severe diarrhoea.
According to the FAO, the precise distribution of the disease within Pakistan is unclear, though most outbreaks are thought to have stemmed from the long-distance movement of dairy buffaloes in Sind and Punjab. The agency’s Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme is working to eliminate the virus in Pakistan within 18 months.
Roeder told IRIN that if rinderpest was not eradicated, then the region could see a resurgence of the disease, as occurred in 1994 when it moved north into Afghanistan and east to China.
Peste des petits ruminants, similar in nature to rinderpest, is currently spreading throughout South Asia and still developing. Bangladesh has appealed for emergency assistance in fighting the disease, Nepal is suffering a major outbreak, and the virus is set to spread into China and Tibet for the first time.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are also infected with the disease, and experts fear its spread into the Central Asian republics, which are home to an enormous number of sheep and goats. Several million wild antelopes in the region are particularly susceptible to the virus.
“We may be looking at a major disaster, not only in terms of domestic livestock but in terms of wildlife heritage, in these places,” Roeder said.
Afghanistan is a critical country, which represents a transit point for these three major viruses. In 1995, the FAO successfully rallied to destroy an outbreak of rinderpest.
“If this had not happened, it is quite possible that rinderpest could have spread up through Afghanistan and across the border into the Central Asian republics. In which case we would have been looking at a devastating epidemic,” according to Roeder.
Sadly, in Afghanistan there is no prospect of any immediate measures to combat FMD. The few resources available are earmarked for humanitarian aid, and not for development activities. Elsewhere in the region, preventative steps have been largely futile. Earlier efforts by the FAO to develop surveillance mechanisms with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan fell apart.
“Specific attention is needed to raise understanding of emergency preparedness and systematic progressive control of these major diseases,” said Roeder.
Despite media reports to the contrary, vaccination is not the only answer. FMD occurs as seven different strains of virus with no cross-protection between each strain, so vaccination would be a mammoth and costly task. Three of the seven types of FMD virus are present only in Africa, while elsewhere in the world there are essentially four strains with various sub-types and new viruses constantly evolving.
The key, according to Roeder, is to target the Central Asian border countries to strengthen their ailing veterinary services. By establishing early warning systems, diseases can be detected and attacked at source. Samples can be submitted to the world reference laboratory, enabling countries to select appropriate vaccines and thus eliminate outbreaks. “These things can be done, but they depend on a degree of infrastructure development, which is not there at the moment,” Roeder said.
Meanwhile, the tiny landlocked country of Kyrgyzstan is suffering from a recent outbreak of FMD, though the country’s veterinary service has been quick to play down the severity of the outbreak. The deputy director of the Kyrgyz state veterinary department, Kakyrakun Anvarbekov, told IRIN that the disease had appeared in seven localised areas of the country, following an earlier outbreak in January. He maintained that the virus did not represent a threat to the Kyrgyz Republic, nor to its neighbours.
However, only 30 km from the Kyrgyz border in nearby Tajikistan, the highly infectious FMD has been detected in cattle on several farms in the northern Soghd region. Media reports say that local authorities are taking some immediate steps, including placing restrictions on the sale of meat and dairy products in markets.
Roeder stressed that urgent action was needed. “If nothing is done to curtail these two recent outbreaks, then those viruses will spread throughout the rest of the Central Asian republics without doubt. We don’t even know what particular strain they are. They may represent a new strain which has not been present in the region before.”
Commenting on the spread of FMD in Britain and in parts of Europe, Roeder said vigilance was necessary. “The virus which is present in Europe is in fact the same virus that was isolated in India in 1990. That has been a very successful virus, which spread from India into China and Nepal.
“If the world had assisted India back then to have made much more progress with the control of FMD, this virus that hit the UK in January would not have happened.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions