(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Curbing deadly bovine disease faces hurdles in Sahel

These cattle are eating the first pasture of the 2012 rainy season. But their owners are unable to head north to seek pasture there for  fear Islamists will steal their flocks. Mopti region
Anna Jefferys/IRIN

Long eradicated in developed countries, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (CBPP) - a highly infectious respiratory disease - remains a huge threat to cattle production in the Sahel and West Africa, where cross-border migration by pastoralists is customary.

The disease persists in many developing countries and is particularly prevalent in West Africa, where weak regional control policies, lack of resources and technical capacity by governments, as well as lack of interest by donors have made it difficult to wipe out, experts say.

“CBPP is very inherent to the region because you have this constant transhumance movement of people and animals,” said Gideon Bruckner, who heads the technical and scientific department of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

“It’s moving across country borders all the time, depending on where water and grazing is available at certain points, or being spread at focal points such as Lake Chad, where animals from Niger, Nigeria and Chad all gather and come into contact with each other before going back to their countries. So you have this continuous cycle of possible reinfection,” he told IRIN.

Reinfection

This is likely what happened in 2012 in the Gambia, when CBPP appeared for the first time since 1971 and killed nearly 10,000 heads of cattle. While the exact cause of the outbreak is unknown, experts believe that it re-emerged due to unregulated cattle trade with Mali and Mauritania, where CBPP remains a problem.

After 11 cattle tested positive for the disease in August 2012 in the Gambia’s Central River Region South, it soon spread to adjacent regions and eventually to neighbouring Senegal’s Tambacounda Region, where the disease was also thought to have been eradicated.

Antibiotics can sometimes help, but veterinarians say treatment is not recommended because while a treated animal may appear healthy, it can still spread the disease. The only way to stop a sick animal from transmitting CBPP is to slaughter it - something that many pastoralists are reluctant to do as it represents an enormous economic loss.

Following the outbreaks, Senegalese and Gambian governments and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) set up public awareness and emergency vaccination campaigns.

FAO says it was able to reach more than 340,000 of the Gambia’s estimated 400,000 heads of cattle. Senegal’s Ministry of Livestock says it has successfully administered around 300,000 vaccine doses.

Authorities say the outbreak appears to be under control for now as no new cases have been reported since January 2013, but specialized teams continue to sensitize pastoralists and farmers and periodically check blood samples from different herds and meat samples from slaughter houses. They say the threat of another outbreak still lingers.

Five-year effort

“With this disease, to eradicate it, it means we have to do it [vaccinate the cattle] annually for five years,” said Mariatou Njie, FAO’s deputy representative in the Gambia.

“So that’s the challenge we are facing now. The FAO was able to fund a large part of it for the first year, which was when the outbreak took place, but to eradicate it completely, we need to continue the [monitoring and eradication efforts] for five years,” she said.

But continuing to administer the vaccines will not be easy.

In the Gambia for instance, FAO says that between US$600,000 and $700,000 will be needed each year to continue eradication efforts. This amount will cover: the costs of vaccination and public awareness campaigns; compensation through restocking for pastoralists who voluntarily slaughter sick animals; funding of ongoing surveillance, including blood sample analyses; and post-vaccination monitoring of herds for any adverse reactions the animals may have.

While Njie said that this is a small price to pay to keep the animals healthy and to ensure that herders maintain their livelihoods, many of the governments in the region cannot afford it and many donors just are not interested in funding such an obscure disease.

“Besides the cost of the vaccine, you need to buy a lot of equipment... syringes, ice boxes to store the vaccine, cool boxes to preserve it en route, vehicles to transport the teams, and so on,” Njie said. “Plus the logistics are just enormous, really. Tracking them [the pastoralists] down, getting teams out to remote sites - it’s really not easy.”

Inter-country cooperation

The vaccines are not 100 percent effective. Veterinarians say that while they can reduce the chances of infection, they cannot completely prevent transmission.

“CBPP is a trans-boundary disease,” OIE’s Bruckner said. “A country will not achieve anything on its own if it tries to control the disease because you can vaccinate your own animals, but if you can’t control animal movements [from one country to another and back], then the vaccines are in vain. The two have to go together.”

The FAO’s national consultant for disaster risk reduction, Essa Khan, said that inter-country cooperation between the Gambia and Senegal was key to containing the recent outbreak so quickly and effectively.

“There was - and continues to be - joint training between the countries as well as information sharing,” Khan said. “Authorities from each country continue to meet to discuss ongoing control and eradication efforts.”

OIE is now encouraging the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to develop a coordinated regional approach for tackling CBPP. But given the countries’ limited budgets and resources and porous borders, enforcing such an approach could be difficult without outside help.

“Unfortunately, it’s always difficult to get funding for these things,” Bruckner said. “Although the OIE is not a donor-funding body by itself, we do try to be an intermediary to stimulate people into becoming donors.”

One way it hopes to do this, and to get local governments to invest more in CBPP, is by revising OIE’s code on the disease to include recognition and endorsement of national CBPP disease programmes.

“It will be a sort of stimulus, hopefully, for countries to move ahead with control and, by doing that, get their name listed by the OIE as a country that has an endorsed programme trying to move towards the pathway of eventual eradication,” Bruckner said.

“For trade purposes, this will be to the benefit of those countries, because other countries and trade partners will realize that they want to control the disease and, hopefully, it will have a ripple effect in the rest of West Africa and among donors and that other countries will want to start doing the same.”

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