Rinderpest, animal health and development in Africa

This week $4.3 bn. was pledged by donors for GAVI (the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation) to roll out vaccination campaigns. The UK alone has committed £814 ($1.33 bn), more than the commitments from the US, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, France and Germany combined (although to be fair to the US, their funding for the provision for ARVs for HIV is enormous).

But have you heard of Galv-Med (the Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicines)? I confess that I haven’t paid much attention to it before. But this is an untold story of health in Africa, and one that is arguably as important in protecting livelihoods (especially of the poorest and most vulnerable) and poverty reduction, as well as having implications for human health.

The health of animals and animal disease epidemics in the global south tends to be reported in rich industrialised countries only when it constitutes a potential or actual threat to ‘our own’ health, bird-flu, for example. But there has been a significant ‘good news’ animal health story recently – one that didn’t receive much international attention. At the end of May, it was announced that rinderpest, a disease that affects cattle as well as wild animals, had been eradicated. If confirmed, this would make it only the second disease to have been eradicated (the other being smallpox).

Believed to have been introduced by Italian soldiers in the Horn of Africa in the late 1880s, in little over a decade rinderpest had swept across the entire continent, killing an estimated 90% of cattle (as well as taking a heavy toll on the population of wild animals). For societies which invested their social, political and economic wealth in cattle, this was of course a disaster – a literal stock-market crash which dwarfed the current global financial crisis in its impact. Coinciding with the violence of the colonial venture – the European carving up of Africa that followed the 1884 Berlin Conference which brought not only soldiers, the Gatlin gun, and the buccaneers of colonial conquest to sub-Saharan Africa, but human and animal disease too – African states and polities were unable to resist the multiple attacks upon their coherence.

By the mid-1900s, the first great African rinderpest epidemic had largely burnt itself out, but outbreaks have continued across the continent over the following century. Nigeria, for example, suffered an outbreak in the early 1980s which cost an estimated $2 billion. However, it looks like the disease has been finally eradicated from its last remaining stronghold in the Horn, its original entry point.

Pastoralist production is a significant form of livelihood for an estimated 1 billion people across the world, 300 million of whom live in Africa. It is a particularly important livelihood for the poorest. According to the InterAfrican Bureau for Animal Resources, 70% of those who live on less than $1 per day depend on livestock for income and food security. Yet, a quarter of livestock die each year due to preventable disease. Some livestock are an important source of income for women (especially chickens and goats, which tend to be looked after by women, who have a greater control over the income they generate), and anything that threatens the health of those animals impacts upon their economic security. Newcastle disease, for example, can kill up to 100% of infected chicken flocks. A study in Mozambique suggested controlling it could increase income from poultry-keeping by up to 42%. The estimated 1.38 billion chickens in Africa are important for food security (providing a much needed source of protein) as well as income.

In addition to the impact on livelihoods, the prevalence of animal disease also inhibits the development of livestock industries across the region. Exports of meat products are limited by laws prohibiting the import of meat from countries where certain diseases exist. The European Union and the US, for example, both ban imports of meat from countries with endemic or epidemic foot and mouth disease, and have similar bans for other diseases – perhaps for good reason in some cases, but there is a suspicion that such regulations are a backdoor for restrictive practices.

There is the further problem of the impact on human health. The Rift Valley fever outbreak centred on Kenya in 2007 killed  several hundred people (325 officially, but likely to be many more). The close proximity of animals and humans for many pastoralist producers and those who keep livestock increases the risk diseases jumping species and taking a significant toll on human morbidity and mortality.

It’s great that governments are supporting GAVI, and in no way should that support be reduced (if anything, it needs to be increased in order to ensure preventable human diseases are controlled and millions of lives saved). But we also need to think about animal health and the economic, social and human cost of the destructive power of livestock diseases. Controlling animal disease requires investment in vaccines, surveillance and monitoring systems, regulatory systems and education campaigns. It requires (as the lessons of controlling human disease show us) long-term commitments, and cooperation and openness between national governments in the affected areas. One thing is clear, veterinary medicine is a tool of development, as much as public health and non-medical interventions for sustainable livelihoods.

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About Mike Jennings

I am a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. My work is on the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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