THIS is apropos of the article ‘Murky sheep saga’ (Nov 12) by Muhammad Ali Rai. I believe that Pakistan is being criticised and blamed unnecessarily. The sheep were actually imported by the government of Bahrain but were rejected because of a viral disease called scabby mouth, ecthyma or orf. Although this disease has a short course and low mortality in adult sheep and goat, it can cause starvation, poor growth and death in lambs and kids.

Poor hygienic conditions (prevalent in Pakistan), secondary bacterial infections and fly infestation can cause disastrous complications. Attendants of the affected sheep and goat can develop vesicles and ulcers on hands and face.

Pakistan has about 80 million sheep and goats, a sizable amount of coarse wool production, as well as export of sheep and goat skins, leather jackets and casings.

Since Pakistan’s status is ‘disease-free’ or ‘undetermined’, we could not take the risk of exposing our animals to a known infectious and contagious disease and jeopardise our valuable exports and so many jobs.

This landing of ‘rejected sheep’ at Karachi was in violation of national import policy and the prevalent customs and quarantine procedures. The importer (smuggler?) had mixed the incoming animals with local animals and had split the flock into several groups. Apparently, he had separated the sick from healthy sheep and this in my opinion resulted in confusion and differences of results by different diagnostic labs.

We do need to improve our research and diagnostic facilities, but even an excellent lab would give diagnosis only on the samples submitted and the tests requested by the applicant. When these sheep were known to be infected by ‘scabby mouth’, I wonder how the international lab could declare them to be disease-free. With these results, they could sue the governments of Bahrain and Kuwait and recover their losses.

The animal rights groups in Australia and elsewhere have been protesting against cruelty to sheep onboard sailing ships. Bulk shipping of sheep causes great degree of distress, discomfort and deprivation to these animals. Live sheep generate a lot of heat, manure and ammonia. Deficiency of feed and water cause starvation, ketosis and stressful conditions, which may activate latent diseases like ‘scabby mouth’.

In 2003 a shipment of 50,000 sheep was rejected by Saudi Arabia due to the scabby mouth disease. After this the ship called at many ports and the company offered to give the sheep free to any country allowing it to unload the animals. The ship Topa Moru had also visited Karachi and the shipping company solicited support of social worker, Abdus Satar Edhi, who made an appeal to the government of Pakistan in the name of humanity.

However, the government of Pakistan did not allow them to unload the sheep at that time. After remaining stranded on high seas for three months, eventually the sheep were given free to framers in Eriteria along with sacks of animal feed and cash for transportation and slaughter.

That episode earned the epithet ‘sheep of shame’. Five thousand had perished onboard.

DR ASHIQ HUSSAIN CHEEMA Member (Rtd), Pakistan Agricultural Research Council Islamabad

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