Shahbaz Rasool may have got all of his 40 cows vaccinated against the fast-spreading Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD) in the nick of time, but the danger is far from over. “I will know for sure after 28 days if they are out of danger,” said the Gujrat-based dairy farmer.
He decided not to wait for the government to vaccinate his animals and bought the imported vaccine that is available from the market. A 100ml bottle is selling for Rs44,000 and 1ml is needed per head. It cost him Rs17,600 to vaccinate his 40 cows.
Livestock, the largest sub-sector in agriculture contributed 60.1 per cent to the agriculture value addition and 11.5pc to the GDP during the 2020-21 financial year, according to the Pakistan Economic Survey.
Rasool’s is among the eight million families engaged in the livestock industry.
Of the entire 63,684 tonnes of milk produced in 2021 (including goat and camel), 30,691 tonnes was produced by buffaloes and 18,686 tonnes by cows, with Punjab managing up to 90pc of the country's milk requirements.
“Some 95pc of small farmers,” a category Rasool places himself in, with a few dozen cows and buffaloes [small farmers are those with up to at the most 50 livestock], “will be impacted the most,” said Rasool, adding that Pakistanis mostly consume buffalo milk, or at least think they do.
Shakir Umer Gujjar, president of the Dairy and Cattle Farmers’ Association (DCFA), Pakistan, the largest dairy farmers’ group said that 30pc of the cow milk is mixed and sold as buffalo milk at shops across Pakistan.
Rasool, the chief organiser of DCFA in Punjab, believes the LSD came to the province after spreading in Sindh province, and enveloped all 36 districts.
What is Lumpy Skin Disease
The vector-borne, transboundary disease found among cattle and water buffaloes, spreads primarily through biting insects such as mosquitoes and ticks, was first discovered among livestock in Zambia, in 1929.
A 100pc non-zoonotic disease, according to Dr Tahir Yaqub, spokesperson of the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences (UVAS) in Lahore, it causes the cattle to suffer from “high temperature, much discomfort and loss of milk production”.
“The nodes developed on the body look rather unsightly, and may carry pus in them if there is bacterial infection.” However, he said, it was fine to consume meat and milk of an infected animal if the former is cooked well and the latter "pasteurised properly”.
According to Dr Zaka Ullah Pathan, a veterinarian based in Khairpur, Sindh, if a female cow is infected, its reproductive organs are badly affected. In addition, the milk productivity of a cow that may have been producing eight litres on an average at one time, will drop down to around 1.5 litres. “In times to come, we will incur a huge loss as the cattle population will decrease,” he warned.
Rasool is worried that if not contained, the disease will annihilate the livestock, dealing a death blow to many small dairy farmers like him. There are 42 million buffaloes and almost 51m cattle in Pakistan, according to the Ministry of National Food Security & Research.
In Karachi, said Gujjar, when the disease spread and people found out about LSD, they stopped buying milk from the milk shops. As a result, farmers were unable to sell even 20pc of the milk produced by their animals in Karachi.
Initially, the milk was going bad, but then they decided to sell it to big companies. “They started buying truckloads of our milk for as little as Rs 800 for 40 litres, although the pre-LSD rates were Rs 4,780 for 40 litres," said Gujjar. "The same milk was then repackaged and sold by the big companies as theirs, but we were thankful even for that, as otherwise we were just throwing it away,” he added.
The blame game
The disease had already infected animals in India, and Iran, before it was first reported in Pakistan in November 2021 from Bahawalpur, in Punjab. “Animals often cross borders and may have come from India where the disease was already present,” surmised Dr Nazeer Hussain Kalhoro, director general of the Sindh Institute of Animal Health, run by the provincial government's livestock department.
Dr Yaqub, on the other hand, believes the disease may have come from the imported livestock that landed at the port at Karachi last year. “Every three-to four months, shipments with livestock come and without checking their health, they are allowed to be transported,” said Dr Pathan, who is also a dairy farmer, and owns 50 cows, of which 20 have been infected by the disease.
For his part, Gujjar confirmed Kalhoro’s assertion that the first reported case came from Punjab and the disease subsequently spread in the port city of Karachi, where commercial farming is practiced on a large scale. But the authorities “refused to acknowledge the disease or take urgent measures to contain it”, he said.
“After writing to the provincial chief secretaries, livestock departments, even the prime minister and as a last resort sending press releases to the media, the government finally took action, but the damage had already been done. Why didn’t they listen to us in time?” questioned an angry Gujjar, demanding an “inquiry against the bureaucrats for their criminal negligence when they knew everything”.
For example, he said, "the first vaccines to arrive in the country were kept at the cold storage at Karachi airport for a month before they were allowed to be used," he claimed. Even now, the task force set up by the Ministry of National Food Security and Research to combat LSD lacks representation of any genuine stakeholders, said Gujjar — a fact that he has pointed out to the prime minister in another letter.
Meanwhile, the meat sellers and milk sellers have not been happy with Gujjar either for bringing the government's attention to the disease, which led to huge losses for them when people stopped buying meat and milk. “They continue to threaten me with dire consequences,” he said.
“Had I not created this much noise, the disease would have devastated the entire cattle population, which has now been contained, in Sindh, at least." However, he predicted the dairy farmers will feel the consequences of this disease for a “very long time”, like it has, in the case of foot and mouth disease which continues to hound the livestock.
The Sindh government, meanwhile, absolved itself from all blame, saying it had informed the federal government way back in November, when it found out. “We even sent samples to the National Veterinary Laboratory in Islamabad,” said Dr Kalhoro. “It took them till March 4 to confirm and declare the disease officially,” he added.
By April 4, the vaccine had been imported from Turkey and over 2.8 million of the province's total 11.39m cattle have been vaccinated thus far, according to data collected by the Livestock Department's Directorate-General. The same dataset reveals that over 53,000 cattle have been infected by the virus, of which 571 have died.
In addition, said Dr Kalhoro, the institute was preparing LSD vaccines in-house which should be ready by December. “It costs us Rs250 to vaccinate one animal from imported vaccine but when ours is ready, it will cost not more than Rs25, he said, “or even less”.
Farmers in Punjab, however, have not been so fortunate. According to Dr Yaqub, less than 10pc of the livestock population in Punjab has been vaccinated and that too with sheep and goat poxes, which according to Dr Pathan is just “50pc effective”. The Punjab government has yet to procure the imported vaccines, he informed.
Dr Abdul Rehman, the Punjab Livestock Department's Director General Research, confirmed they had vaccinated around 10pc of the total population with the locally-produced goat-pox vaccines. He added, however, that the efficacy of the vaccine against LSD was around 70pc-80pc. "It is also locally produced and costs only Rs10 per does," he said.
According to Dr Rehman, the livestock department developed a contingency plan soon after the first few cases were reported from Bahawalpur and Rahim Yar Khan in March, earlier this year. As part of the plan, a core team of senior officials was tasked with monitoring the situation and oversee the operations of a 24-hour LSD cell set up for the purpose. Furthermore, a toll free number — 080009211 — was dedicated to reporting of LSD cases.
Besides, the livestock department also built an app — ADRS Farmer — on which farmers may report LSD cases, among others. "At least 2,500 farmers and another 2,000 para-veterinary staff have registered themselves on the app," said Dr Rehman, adding that another app — ADRS RO — had 1,000 vets registered on it.
"We are basically encouraging farmers to report cases," he said, adding that when a case is reported on the app or via phone, a team is quickly dispatched to the GPS location and it vaccinates all cattle within a 3-kilometre radius. "Moreover, we are also working on stopping the transmission of the virus through anti-bug spray campaigns," he said.
The livestock department has set up check posts at all major inter-provincial and inter-district thoroughfares to ensure that the animals being transported are sprayed, said Dr Rehman. "These spraying activities are also being conducted at the over 300 cattle markets across Punjab, almost 190 of which have been set up specifically for Eidul Azha."
For Dr Rehman, the success of their efforts can be gauged from the fact that only 48 cattle of the 10,000 infected have died so far. "When an infected animal is reported, we provide it symptomatic treatment until it has recovered," he said, adding that worldwide, the mortality rate from the virus stands at 1-2pc, but in Punjab, it is only 0.48pc.
With Eidul Azha approaching, cattle markets set up across the country will likely prove to be super-spreader events, warned Gujjar. In Karachi, the provincial livestock department has deputed veterinarian doctors and staff at the main market off the Super Highway to inspect cattle being brought in and ensure no livestock infected by the virus finds its way to the stalls.
Pathan fears Sindh, which has been able to somewhat contain the disease, may witness a second wave due to the buying and selling of animals at these markets. “Farmers from Punjab usually bring their choicest animals to Karachi to sell, which has a huge livestock market and receive good rates,” said Rasool.
"We are inspecting animals in each truck that arrives at the market in the marshalling area," said Asif Ali Syed, the spokesperson for the Karachi Cattle Market. "No animal is allowed to enter the market without a vaccination certificate," he added. To date, the administration has returned 13 trucks, which had brought in cattle without the certificates.
The certificate is also checked at one of several check posts set up along the route from Punjab to Karachi, he added. However, Gujjar said the certificates issued in Punjab provided no surety as they were being issued against the administration of the goat-pox vaccines, whose efficacy was limited against LSD.
Moreover, while there were strict measures in place at the market set up along the Super Highway, the smaller market in Malir presents a completely different picture. At a recent survey of the Malir market, several animals were found to have the pus-filled nodes all over their body, which are characteristic of the disease. When the traders were asked about them, they justified that the animals that had visible symptoms had been separated from the lot.
Again, Gujjar rubbished this justification. "This virus spreads through water and via mosquitoes and flies. If one of the animals has been infected, there are very good chances that all of them do," he said.
According to Dr Yaqub, it takes around seven days for the animal to manifest symptoms of the virus after the initial infection. "The boils start appearing after around 10 days," he said, adding that the animal takes around 15-20 days to recover even though the boils may cause permanent abrasions on the body.
"I would recommend everyone to only purchase animals for Eidul Azha two days prior to the festival," said Gujjar. "This way, you would ensure that the animal is healthy at the time of slaughter because even though it may have been infected, the viral load would be negligible and won't affect the animal's health."
This piece was originally published in SciDevNet and has been updated and republished with permission. The original article can be accessed here: https://www.scidev.net/asia-pacific/news/fears-of-lumpy-skin-disease-resurgence-at-eid-festival/