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Minister downplays FMD outbreak to mere “spillage”

News - Date: 20 January 2019

Written by: Jo Robinson / Viewed: 844


The announcement last week of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in cattle in Vhembe caused shockwaves throughout the country. The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) stated last Tuesday that samples collected just outside the FMD Control Zone in the Free Zone had tested positive for the highly contagious virus.

The control systems in place should prevent FMD from crossing the safety zones. The Kruger National Park (KNP) is home to Syncerus caffer, the African or Cape Buffalo, which are permanent carriers of the FMD virus. In the centre of the KNP, or the Red Zone, FMD gets to run its course as vaccinations are not carried out here. While the KNP is classified as an endemic FMD area, areas around it have been designated whereby strict control and inspection should ensure that the virus does not leave the park. Bordering on the FMD Infected Red Zone of the KNP, which itself is an area 60 to 80 kilometres wide and 350 kilometres long, is a 10- to 12-kilometre-wide Buffer Zone. This area is separated from the infected zone by a 2.4-metre high electric fence. All cattle in the Buffer Zone are vaccinated every six months and branded with an “F” on their necks. They must be inspected by veterinary services every week.

Next comes the Surveillance Zone. All cattle in this 10-kilometre-wide area are required to be inspected every two weeks, and no vaccination takes place in it. The final protection comes in the further 10-kilometre-wide area along South Africa’s national borders where livestock must be inspected every 28 days. The vaccinated animals in the Buffer Zone should provide a measure of safety whereby any infected animals found in the Surveillance Zone are dealt with accordingly before they can spread the virus outwards into the FMD-Free areas beyond.

Dr Barend Harris of the Blouberg Animal Clinic explained that it would be impossible to vaccinate every cloven-hoofed animal in the KNP, which is why this controlled system is in place and why ensuring that all necessary steps are taken to keep the rest of South Africa FMD-free is of utmost importance.

“FMD has a high morbidity but a low mortality rate,” said Dr Harris. “Most animals who contract it do not die from the actual virus. They often die of causes related to FMD, such as the fact that they cannot eat or drink or move around because of the pain and extreme discomfort of the FMD lesions. The problem with this virus is how contagious it is. At this point, aggressive testing will have to be done in affected areas, and identification and culling will have to be carried out as necessary. Fences and chemical barriers must be brought back to effectiveness, and vaccinations must be given as required.”

In a media briefing after a meeting of stakeholders and the government on Monday concerning this latest outbreak of FMD, minister Senzeni Zokwana played down South Africa’s current loss of its World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) FMD-Free-Zone status. Zokwana repeatedly emphasised that this was not an outbreak, but rather a “spillage” in only one area. Industry members who had taken part in the meeting prior to the briefing mentioned on several occasions that the meat of animals infected with FMD was not at all harmful to humans and quite fit for consumption. They heartily encouraged people to continue enjoying their braais. The fact that meat for export was being returned to South Africa was said to mean that consumers would benefit from lower prices for the purchase of red meat.

In a report in October last year, SABC News reported that because of a shortage of vaccines against FMD, routine inoculation of cattle in the Mopane area had been stopped. They further reported an increase in cases of this disease as a result. EWN also reported in the same month that cases had been confirmed in the Malamulele and Giyani area. Vaccines had run out and 15 000 doses had to be purchased urgently from Botswana. In answer to a query from the press as to why the department had not reported the fact that FMD had crossed into the Free Zone when it first became known, Zokwana stated that they had first wanted to engage with the industry. He said that the first order of business would be to get a task team working to attempt to convince trading partners to purchase livestock products from non-affected areas, despite the FMD-Free suspension status of the country, and thereby minimise the impact on the economy.

DAFF spokesperson Khaye Nkwanyana confirmed that South Africa’s FMD-Free status has been suspended temporarily and that any exports requiring this attestation would not be certified. He said that it appeared that the outbreak was still localised and that it had been caught before it could spread to other districts; he issued a figure of approximately 15 000 cattle affected. A joint committee had been set up, consisting of a DAFF technical team, national and provincial veterinary officials, the SAPS and Defence Force, Limpopo-based officials and other involved officials. The team is currently on the ground, quarantining the relevant areas until they have quantified the full extent of animals affected and will then begin a massive vaccination campaign.

Chief Director of Animal Production and Health Dr Botlhe Modisane stated that “…the impact this has had in the past week has been devastating, to say the least...” and urged all related industries to work with the task team to minimise the impact. He said that the culling of affected or in-contact animals in the infected area was currently not advocated. So far, the Vhembe area within the R81, R26, N1 and the R524 roads has been declared a disease-management area, and farmers countrywide are cautioned to observe bio-security measures. Currently, movement of all cloven-hoofed animals and unprocessed products from the Mopani, Vhembe, Capricorn and Molemole District is discouraged, and movement permits that have already been issued for this are withdrawn. Modisane stated that regaining OIE FMD-Free status would be a long process and that everyone needed to work together to achieve it. Everyone clearly has reason to be concerned.

South Africa lost its OIE FMD-Free-Zone status before, in February 2011, and only regained it in February 2014 after adverse impacts estimated at R4 billion, according to a media statement issued by Zokwana on 13 January 2015. In that statement, the minister stated that they had implemented “Operation Compliance” to ensure that OIE requirements would be met and adhered to. He stated that “…an outbreak of FMD in the Free Zone of the country has serious economic implications due to an immediate embargo on all exports of livestock and livestock products to our trading partners. In certain circumstances the ban may even be imposed on all agricultural produce including plants and plant products. The OIE FMD Free Zone status of this country should not be taken lightly and must be safeguarded by all. Most of our trading partners who are members of the OIE regard this as a crucial yardstick when assessing the efficiency of Veterinary Services of the country and this status quo enhances international trade of our agricultural produce.”

In a press release last week, the Limpopo Animal Health Forum (LAHF) stated that the current condition of the Limpopo border fence was concerning, and that poor training and corruption within the departments responsible for these things had rendered transport permits and identification of animals problematic. They added that fences and chemical prevention controls were not being properly maintained. DAFF departmental spokesperson Khaye Nkwanyana also stated that “…their security measures are of a poor standard. It is a matter we are raising with authorities here…”

Together with the lack of vaccinating from October 2018 from what is currently public knowledge, FMD has had at least a couple of months to spread, and its extreme contagiousness ensures that until South Africa can get back its FMD-Free Status, the current situation will have impacts on more than only exports of cattle, sheep and pork products, and have a negative effect on the country's economy as a whole.


South Africa has already felt the economic consequences this week after losing its Foot-and-Mouth-Disease-Free Zone status. Photo supplied.



Jo Robinson

Jo joined the Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror in 2018 pursuing a career in journalism after many years of writing fiction and non-fiction for other sectors.


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