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Livestock in the city: separating fact from fiction

In the absence of evidence, policies are often based on the prejudice that urban livestock keeping is unsafe (© Kate Holt/Internews Network)
In the absence of evidence, policies are often based on the prejudice that urban livestock keeping is unsafe
© Kate Holt/Internews Network

From growing vegetables to keeping camels, at least 800 million people in cities in developing countries practise urban agriculture, often in close confinement in densely populated areas. Farming has been increasing in many African cities in response to high demand for livestock products and persistent urban poverty, which have driven poor people to diversify their livelihoods. Dairy cattle are not the most obvious domestic animals to share small and crowded city compounds, but the rewards - including improved food security, nutrition and health - are considerable.

In Nairobi, dairying is recognised as a widespread activity, which has led to concerns about livestock being a source of pollution and disease. Hazards undoubtedly exist: a study by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) found that zoonoses (diseases transmitted between animals and humans) make up 26 per cent of the infectious disease burden in low-income countries, but only 0.7 per cent in high-income countries. But in the absence of evidence, policies are often based on the prejudice that urban livestock keeping is unsafe, and it is often banned outright.

In 2005, a study was initiated by the University of Nairobi and ILRI to understand the risks and benefits of urban dairying, in order to contribute to pro-poor policy and help create good practice guidelines for risk reduction. The study focused on a diarrhoeal disease, cryptosporidiosis, because of its prevalence in cattle and its status as an emerging disease that was of concern to decision-makers. As a parasite that is harboured in cattle but can affect people, especially the immune-suppressed, Cryptosporidium may be found in raw milk, manure, soil and water, and on vegetables and other foods, as well as other contaminated surfaces.

Defining risks

Dairying is recognised as a widespread activity in Nairobi (© WRENmedia)
Dairying is recognised as a widespread activity in Nairobi
© WRENmedia

In Dagoretti, which lies 12 kilometres from Nairobi's city centre, 1 in 80 households were found to keep cattle, with an average of three cattle per household. However, the study found that there was no difference between cattle-keeping and non-cattle keeping households in Cryptosporidium prevalence, no association between infection in cattle and in people in the same households, and that the prevalence of the parasite in people living with HIV was no higher than in the general community.

The disease risk posed by raising, processing and consuming livestock products in urban areas was revealed to be less than many people think. For example, most people, including food safety officials, thought that livestock-derived foods such as meat and milk carried the greatest risk of passing on diseases which are harboured by animals. But although dairy cattle are the reservoir of Cryptosporidium, consumption of raw vegetables was found to be more risky than consuming milk. This could be because untreated cattle manure is used as a fertiliser.

Consumption of raw vegetables was found to be more risky than consuming milk (© WRENmedia)
Consumption of raw vegetables was found to be more risky than consuming milk
© WRENmedia

Exposure to Cryptosporidium was also influenced by gender, age and role in the household. Through milking activities, feeding and watering cattle and taking care of sick household members, women were more at risk of exposure than men. Children had a high risk of exposure because they are preferentially given fresh milk: consumption of milk is an important route of exposure, especially because hand-milking into open pails increases the chance that milk will be contaminated with cattle faeces. Elderly people and farm workers, who had high contact with cattle and cattle faeces, were also highly vulnerable. "By looking at gender, age, occupation and other social factors, we can target those at highest risk to provide the special protection they need," says Violet Kimani, from the University of Nairobi. "Several studies have shown women and children can be at higher risk. Our study revealed a neglected group - the hired farm workers, who are mostly male."

A significant finding was that dairy households were significantly less likely to report diarrhoea than non-dairy neighbours. Although consuming milk increases risk of exposure to milk-borne disease, consumption of milk has many nutritional benefits and positive impacts on health, and it could be that these offset any increased exposure to zoonotic pathogens. Alternatively, prior exposure could lead to the development of immunity. "This underscores the complex relationship between livestock-keeping and health," explains ILRI's Delia Grace, the principal investigator in the study. "This uncertainty underlines the need for more research but also reveals that even when cattle harbour diseases, the health of households that keep cattle may on the whole be better than those that don't."

Changing behaviour

The research team, together with residents from Dagoretti, used the research findings to develop targeted messages for each high-risk group. Rather than trying to strictly regulate informal markets or ban poor people from owning livestock, the study created incentives for the poor (such as the desire to be seen as a good parent), to improve their livestock practices. Messages included: separate the area where cattle stay from the rest of the homestead, to reduce the contact children have with cattle and cattle faeces; train children to wash their hands with soap and water after toileting and before eating; boil milk; wear protective clothing; only eat raw vegetables that have been properly washed; and keep calf pens clean. These messages were disseminated through workshops, printed materials, community campaigners and an episode of Makutano Junction, a popular 'edutainment' soap broadcast on Kenyan TV.

Urban agriculture can generate both health and wealth for the poor (© FAO/Simon Maina)
Urban agriculture can generate both health and wealth for the poor
© FAO/Simon Maina

Grace emphasises the need for more evidence in the planning and practice of urban food systems: "Urban agriculture can generate both health and wealth for the poor," she explains, "but optimization of benefits requires a radical and evidence-based change in assessment, management and communication of health risks, considering all the interactions and trade-offs inherent in all complex social-ecological systems. Policies should follow a risk-based approach where decision-makers' focus is not on the bugs present in food but the likely effects on human health. The risks of food-borne diseases also need to be weighed against the economic benefits and nutrition abundantly supplied by animal products."

Date published: May 2013

 

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