The impact of Rift Valley fever in Kenya
As Kenya continues to grapple with Rift Valley fever (RVF), Tanzania has reported its first human deaths to the disease and there are fears that the disease has also spread into Somalia. Since RVF was first detected in the northern region of Kenya in late December 2006, more than 100 people have died and thousands of livestock have succumbed to the disease. Moreover, the continuing spread of RVF is having a major impact on the region's livestock and dairy industries.
"The impact has been devastating, especially in pastoral areas where livestock are the major source of food and income," says Dr. Joseph Musaa, Kenya's Director of Veterinary Services. "What started in the semi-arid and arid northern Kenya, leaving 150 people dead, has also resulted in quarantine, which means the animals cannot be transported, and all livestock markets and border trade have ceased in the affected areas." Such severe measures are necessary, he argues, if human lives are to be saved and further spread prevented.
Drought and floods exacerbate the problem
Prior to the outbreak, Kenya's North Eastern Province had already suffered serious drought, resulting in the deaths of many animals. Unusually heavy rains in October / November 2006 then led to flooding, creating favourable breeding conditions for disease-carrying mosquitoes. The virus is transmitted through infected mosquito bites or contact with the blood or body fluids of infected animals. In humans, the virus produces influenza-like symptoms and while most cases are mild, a small proportion of patients develop a more severe form of the disease.
In livestock, the first signs of the disease are the high level of abortions in sheep and goats. Young animals are also likely to die from the disease whilst older animals develop a lifelong immunity. The impact on pastoralist households has been devastating, as they lose their sources of both food and income, from loss of livestock and of the ability to trade. "People are starving because of the disease. Slaughtering has been forbidden," says Mohammed Osman, who rears cattle and goats.
Ishmael Omar, a livestock keeper from Garissa, believes the government should take responsibility for the continuing spread of the disease. "The government has been slow in acting," he says, "and it's due to this that it's becoming impossible to contain the disease." He fears for the future of the national meat industry, which produces more than 363 million kilograms of red meat each year valued at over US$ 615 million. The value of the beef market alone is estimated at US$ 500 million.
At Kenya's slaughterhouses the risk posed to the meat industry is clear. According to Nairobi-based livestock dealer Arfon Abdi, the number of goats being slaughtered at the capital's Kiamichale slaughterhouse has fallen by 75 per cent. "Because of the ban on animal movement there is no work for livestock sellers," reports Joseph Musaa. "At butcheries people are not buying the meat. Consumers are fearful of contracting the virus."
In areas affected by the disease, the government has deferred exports until the health of the herds has been assessed and virus-free status assured. "We are also spraying chemicals in affected areas to kill mosquitoes," says Musaa. "The level of hatching is being reduced using oil-based synthetic pyrethroids. The effect lasts for about three weeks."
Shortfall in vaccine and funding
Uninfected herds are currently being vaccinated with RVF vaccine, but while the country now has 1.5 million doses of vaccine, it needs three million doses to cover the needs of its livestock. The government's speed of response to the disease - criticised by some - has also suffered from lack of emergency funds, most of which have already been exhausted in dealing with the drought. According to Joseph Munyao, Livestock and Fisheries Minister, Kenya needs Ksh 2 billion a year (US$29 million) to effectively contain the virus.
One of the major donors has been USAID, which has supplied 1.2 million doses of vaccine. US veterinary officers have also teamed up with local officers to administer vaccinations. Over 750,000 animals had been vaccinated by early February 2007. FAO has pledged an additional 500,000 doses in a bid to achieve the 2 million mark and the Center for Disease Control has also been working with the Kenya Medical Research Institute and the Ministry of Health in conducting investigations.
"Since the last outbreak in 1997, the Kenya government has had a lot of support from development partners," reports Musaa. "They have helped train personnel on dealing with the disease, from diagnosis to cure. We also now have state-of-the-art machinery for detection. Specimen results are provided in a much shorter time than ten years ago, when they had to be shipped out."
However, Musaa acknowledges that there is still a need to strengthen the government's veterinary department. More, and better equipped laboratories should be spread all over the country to face the challenge. USAID has expressed concern that the disease could trigger a regional food crisis by spreading to countries like Sudan. Uganda is already on high alert. This concern is fully justified: in 1997 an outbreak killed 300 people in Kenya following heavy rains. In the same year there was a flare up in Egypt that claimed 600 lives.
Date published: March 2007
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