Covid-19 Watch

Livestock disease control and its reliance on human behavioural changes

The novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) causes severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-Cov-2) emerged in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, and was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 11 March 2020. Humans, worldwide, are a fully susceptible population to this novel Covid virus. Within a short time, this disease has spread to all continents disrupting our daily lives, with serious impacts to the global economy. Countries are implementing different control measure in the hope of flattening the curve and preventing our healthcare services from being overwhelmed. South Africa declared a National Disaster on March 24, by placing a National Lockdown for 21 days which was further extended to the end of April, by which time lockdown restrictions will be less stringent. This virus is not going away anytime soon. The size and long term consequences of this outbreak are currently unknown, as this a new virus where many lessons are actually being learnt during the pandemic. However, South Africa’s government best bet on controlling this pandemic depends on breaking the chain of infection by closing all our borders, practising social distancing, restricting local movement between provinces and reducing the risk of contact and spread by asking us to stay at home. These are not new concepts in disease control.

We live in uncertain times. As veterinary and para-veterinary professionals in livestock disease control, we commend our healthcare colleagues for the incredible work being done in healthcare facilities around the world. This is an impressive and collective, international effort that prevented countless infections and has saved millions of lives. From a livestock perspective, epidemics as a result of new, emerging and exotic diseases in new and susceptible animal populations are not uncommon. For example, Avian Influenza, Bluetongue in Europe, African swine fever in the EU, African horse sickness in Spain and Portugal, to list a few. Frequent outbreak of these exotic and novel livestock diseases have given us time to document our experiences in handling outbreaks in fully susceptible animal populations. 

The legislation for governing livestock health interventions is well documented and robust, mainly because we prioritise human health and livelihoods, protect food chains, mitigate impact on livestock businesses and protect our national economics. Since we understand the affects of livestock diseases on human and environmental health, we have a responsibility to control outbreaks of livestock quickly and efficiently, to minimise its affects on animal welfare, the impacts of disease control on the environment, to mitigate risk for businesses and our economy and our reputation in a global market as suppliers of high quality, safe products. These factors have a combined domino effect on South Africa as a global trade partner in animals and their by-products. It is for this reason that the World Organisation for One Health has a well-developed system for disease control. Our foundation of livestock disease control, is made up of 4 pillars: 

  1. Biosecurity – which is the set of preventative health measures designed to reduce the risk of animals contracting diseases and reducing the risk of disease transmission within animal populations and between animal populations and humans. Some of these measure used include quarantining new animals in an area, early disease identification and herd monitoring, animal identification, separating animals in various stages of production, fencing, good nutrition, etc
  2. Biocontainment – a series of management practices that prevent the spread of infectious diseases between animal populations on a farm (stop the spread) or the management practices designed to prevent the disease agent from leaving a farm (if you have the disease, keep it – don’t share!). These practices include good cleaning and disinfection of areas; good hygiene of farm personnel; separating sick animals (those showing signs of disease) from healthy; separating in-contact animals (those animals who have been in direct contact with sick animals, but are not yet showing signs of disease); restricting access to sick animals
  3. Surveillence – Risk based surveillance, which is based on high-risk animals (those animals in direct contact of sick animals and those animals kept in close proximity) to reduce the spread of the disease and Syndromic surveillance, where cases are identified (those showing signs of disease) but are not a true representation of infected animals in a population – there may be asymptomatic carriers of disease who don’t show clinical signs of disease – these are the challenging animals in disease control. 
  4. Resilience – the capacity for both the animal and the farmer/producer to recover quickly from the impact of physical, social stressors and disease challenges that will improve the evolutionary fitness of animal populations, as well as their welfare and performance within livestock production systems.

You will notice the similarities of disease control in livestock disease control above, and the Covid-19 pandemic strategies. The major differences between them, is that Covid-19 is completely reliant on human compliance, whereas animals in livestock production systems are restricted in their movement and are reliant on farmer/producer for their identification, feed, husbandry, hygiene, movement, disease monitoring, etc.

Seeing that agro-economists and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) have already predicted that our meat supply for 2050 will not be sufficient to supply meat for an estimated 10 billion people. It is for this reason that many emerging economies are focusing on small scale farmers, who make up approximately 475 million small farm households of 3 billion rural people in developing countries. It is these farmers that are the focus of training in disease control, as many are poor, food insecure, and have limited access to markets and services. It is also these small scale farmers that are the most vulnerable to livestock diseases and the impacts of epidemics and disease control, especially when slaughter out policies, without compensation are invoked. 

The basis of livestock disease control, like the Covid-19 pandemic, relies on humans, in this case farmers and producers, to act responsibly, collectively and cohesively in their response to outbreaks and disease control. It is also reliant on veterinary and para-veterinary professionals to be proactive in training and supporting farmers in primary preventative animal health measures, instead of reactive during an outbreak. Setting up robust systems of primary animal health on farms, whether commercial or small scale, assists farmers to be more resilient to the affects of disease and disease control in the event of outbreaks. Farmers must understand their responsibilities and decisions on their individual farms have a direct impact on livestock health and welfare, the economics of their farm practices, the quality of the products that they provide to the public and their contributions to the South African National Development Plan.

Lets work together to reduce the impact of diseases in our country, both human and livestock. Let’s make South Africa great together.

Article By: Dr Thireshni Chetty
BVMCh (Medunsa)
Large Animal Veterinarian
Rural Farmer training and Support 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Mzansi Agriculture Talk or its members

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