Cattle farming is an important activity for an agrarian economy like Pakistan where the livestock sector contributed approximately 61.9 per cent to the value-added agriculture sector and 14pc to the national GDP during 2021-22.

More than eight million rural families engaged in livestock production in the country are deriving around 35-40pc of their income from this sector. Gross value addition of the sector has increased by 3.26pc in a year — from Rs5.269 trillion in 2020-21 to Rs5.441tr in 2021-22 as per the latest Economic Survey of Pakistan.

Realising the importance of the sector the federal government in the last budget intended to develop export meat processing zones, disease-free zones (foot and mouth disease, Peste des Petitis ruminants, highly pathogenic avian influenza), facilitate the setting up of modern slaughterhouses and offer it financial sector support.

The livestock sector had already been facing constraints, including high feed and energy prices, a lack of credit and training facilities, poor advisory, breeding and veterinary services, as well as exploitation by the middle man, etc, when it was hit hard by the Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD) in large animals devastating many small farmers in Sindh, Punjab and elsewhere.

The problem will multiply when the virus mutates in the local host and enhances its immunity against the drugs and vaccinations so far used against it

Neither the federal nor the provincial governments made any financial allocations in their respective budgets for controlling the LSD, which had been first reported in the Jamshoro district of Sindh last November. The governments had ample time to make the financial and administrative arrangements for effectively overcoming this looming threat in their respective budgets presented in June.

First observed in 1929 in Zambia, the LSD is a viral infection that causes fever and nodules on the skin and mucous membranes of animals. The non-zoonotic disease is transmitted by bloodsucking insects like ticks and mosquitoes and can also prove fatal.

Dr Abdur Rehman, director-general (research) of the Punjab livestock department, says that the LSD was non-existent in the subcontinent and was first observed in India in 2019.

He says they had been alerted when the first case was reported in November in Sindh but its prevalence could be verified only by March after lengthy microbiological testing processes.

As sheep-pox and goat-pox have been there for decades, the department was producing vaccines for the two diseases and around 30,000 of them were immediately given to Sindh with encouraging results.

However, the use of the sheep-pox and goat-pox vaccines has generated controversy among animal health authorities and the farming community. Dr Rehman claims that the step had not been taken on a hit and trial basis; rather both the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH) recommend particularly the use of the goat-pox vaccine for large animals in emergency cases.

However, farmers say that the officials are delaying the import of the appropriate (Heterologous) vaccine and thus causing irreparable loss to the farming community and the country. “The FAO and WOAH recommendations are only for emergency use purposes, while we have raised an alarm much before the disease hit Punjab farms,” says Dairy and Cattle Farmers Association leader Shahbaz Rasool.

“The LSD has destroyed the sector in Punjab, which contributes 70pc to the national livestock, particularly hitting small farmers as not a single cattle farm has been spared by the disease. We had highlighted the problem in February in direct meetings with Punjab authorities as well as through news conferences but the authorities concerned did little to save the sector.”

Both sides also clash on the mortality ratio and the mechanisms adopted to calculate the losses.

Dr Suhail Manzoor, director of the Animal Disease Diagnostic & Reporting Centre, says they have so far recorded only 29,620 cases of LSD since the outbreak of the disease with just 765 deaths in Punjab.Explaining the methodology adopted to collect the data, Dr Rehman says that with the emergence of the first case, a contingency plan was devised and a core team was formed with an information technology system to document the prevalence of the disease and take appropriate measures accordingly.

“As we need traceability up till farmer level, a mobile phone user-friendly application was launched in which the farmer was required to upload his and the affected animal’s pictures, whereas a parallel information collection mechanism was also activated to cross-check the situation through the department’s union council level infrastructure.” The data is being daily updated and its analysis suggests that the prevalence of the LSD is on the decline after hitting its peak, he adds.

Expecting an illiterate, or poorly literate, resource-less farmer to use an app for getting his problem documented could only be an imaginary plan, objects Mr Rasool. “In the absence of any promise of compensating for the financial loss, one cannot expect that a resource-constraint farmer will be doing anything to upload pictures of his ailing cattle.

“He will rather conceal the prevalence of the disease at his farm so that his customers may not stop purchasing milk from him to avert catching the LSD as has been seen in Karachi, where beef and milk sales plummeted after the outbreak. And this led to under-reporting of the otherwise much higher ratio of casualties.”

Though the livestock authorities claim that the LSD ratio is on the decline, partially because of their efforts and partially because of nature’s help, there is no time to take a sigh of relief. Rather, the worst is feared when the virus, after its development in the local host (animal), will recur in the second wave.

“The problem will multiply when the virus mutates in the local host and enhances its immunity against the drugs and vaccinations so far used against it,” says Dr Sajjad Hussain, director of the Veterinary Research Institute, Lahore. “The animals not covered during the ongoing vaccination drive and the calves that are going to be born in the near future will be at more risk of the feared new strain of the virus.”

He says that with the available sheep-pox and goat-pox vaccines, they have vaccinated around 15pc of the cattle population only in the province and are in the process of importing 6m doses of (heterologous) vaccines to improve the vaccination coverage. Besides, he says, his institute is working round the clock and seven days a week to prepare local heterologous vaccines by December this year to counter the onslaught of the new strain(s).

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 29th, 2022

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