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Livestock Epidemic Spreading in DRC

DRC herdsmen are losing their goats to a disease Ovine rinderpest. Authorities say about 25,000 goats have died of the disease and another 5,000 from infected herds have been slaughtered during the past six months, May 19, 2012. (N. Long)
KINSHASA - The Democratic Republic of Congo is asking for help in controlling the worst outbreak of a livestock disease in the country in recent years. In Kinshasa an epidemic of ovine rinderpest is killing goats and sheep.

No one knows the full scale of this epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But in one territory where figures were collected - Massima Nimba in Bandundu province - the authorities say about 25,000 goats have died of the disease and another 5,000 from infected herds have been slaughtered during the past six months.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's DRC representative, Diaga Gaye, says this is the worst livestock epidemic in more than 10 years in the country.

“There is a very, very serious outbreak of this disease, mostly in the province of Bandundu. And according to information we get from our colleagues in the field, the disease is spreading and being declared in other provinces,” he said.

Ovine rinderpest, also known as PPR, cannot be transmitted to humans. But it is serious for the population, says Dr. Lemba Mabela, the head of Congo’s veterinary service.

Dr. Mabela says goats are the poor man’s cows. And every financial problem the poor have, whether it Is a problem with the chief, or with the administration or a marriage problem, is settled with goats.

Ovine rinderpest was first confirmed in the DRC in 2008, although it had long been suspected. Experts at the veterinary service say as soon as farmers see the symptoms, which include diarrhea, a running nose and hair sticking up, they often dispose of the sick animals and drive the rest to other villages - spreading the disease.

The government has for the first time asked for FAO help with a mass vaccination campaign. Vaccinations against the disease have already started in neighboring Congo Brazzaville.

The FAO representative says vaccinations need to be carefully targeted, around the contaminated areas.

“When the disease is already in a designated area it Is too late to vaccinate," Gaye stated. "Better is to vaccinate animals in not yet contaminated areas.”

The government veterinary service agrees and explains that animals already carrying the virus may still die if they are vaccinated, warning the vaccine would be wasted and farmers might lose faith in it. So an an information campaign is also being planned.

“We have to combine vaccination and information and sensitization of people so that they understand there is no need to try to escape the disease simply by transferring animals from an infected area to a safe area," Gaye said. "On the contrary, they will just contribute to disseminating the disease.”

The government’s veterinary workers will need to support an information campaign if it is to work. There are several thousand veterinary workers in the Congo, many of them supervising livestock markets like the Liberty Market on the outskirts of Kinshasa where goats from Bandundu are sold.

Veterinary technician Benjamin Memwilemi works at Liberty Market. He says it would be difficult to control the movement of goats in the interior. He said the way to persuade farmers not to move their animals out of contaminated areas is to provide treatment for the animals in those areas.

This is not the government’s or FAO’s message. It appeared Memwilemi had been told very little about ovine rinderpest, he also said he did not know the symptoms, although cases have been identified in Kinshasa.

The government declared the epidemic only two weeks ago and is still discussing with the Food and Agriculture Organization what can be done. The FAO has agreed to contribute $500,000 for free vaccinations of half a million goats around Massima Nimba, starting next month.

The vaccine will cost about 50 cents per animal, but there are other costs, including transport, freezers and paying the personnel. The Food and Agriculture Organization says the $500,000 is just an initial response and much more funding will be needed.