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March 23, 2011

Foot-and-mouth disease threatens South African communal farmers

Officials in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal Province are struggling to contain the first major outbreak of foot-and-mouth (FMD) disease in more than a decade.

The outbreak, confirmed by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) on 3 March, has already proved costly for the commercial farming sector and could be even more devastating to small-scale farmers.

The World Organization for Animal Health has temporarily suspended South Africa's FMD-free international status, forcing it to ban all exports of potentially infected animal products.

FMD is highly contagious, affecting cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep and goats, and is characterized by lesions, high fever and lameness. While seldom fatal in adult animals, the disease can cause sudden death among young animals, seriously hampering production and compromising the future of herds, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). It does not affect humans.

Sandy La Marque, CEO of the KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union (Kwanalu), said the epicentre of the outbreak was a highly rural area where smallholder farmers were rearing about 100,000 cattle and 2,000 goats.

The government has yet to formally declare an FMD-control area, but has begun to implement control measures, such as vaccinating uninfected animals and setting up road blocks to prevent the movement of livestock. DAFF spokesperson Selby Bokaba said there was no immediate threat of culling.

However, Dr Botlhe Modisane, a DAFF technical spokesperson, said there was a chance that farmers with asymptomatic infected animals might ignore warnings to limit the movement of livestock in certain areas, and to report suspected cases to state veterinary surgeons.

He noted that the outbreak has been characterized by particularly mild symptoms, which might make it difficult to diagnose infected animals, especially among the hardy Nguni cattle kept by communal farmers.

"Unfortunately, if there is no clinical manifestation of the disease, some farmers may not realize there is a problem, and we are concerned because there are so many cultural practices in the area in which we are trying to contain the disease," Modisane said.

He explained that one such practice - paying lobola (the bride price) in cattle - could result in infected animals being moved to other areas, spreading the disease.

KwaZulu-Natal's provincial minister for economic development and tourism, Mike Mabuyakhulu, urged residents in the affected area, which is near South Africa's borders with Swaziland and Mozambique, to respect the ban on animal movements across district, provincial, and international borders.

"If you want to pay lobola to a family across your border, or any other traditional ritual that requires cattle, and you were hoping to buy it across the border, you are advised to suspend such arrangement until further notice," Mabuyakhulu said in a statement. "However, buying, slaughtering and eating meat from cows bought within your district boundary is allowed."

Lydia Johnson, the provincial minister for agriculture, environmental affairs and rural development, also urged rural communities to report farmers who refused to bring their livestock to state dipping tanks.

A lack of symptoms may not be the only thing hampering control of the outbreak. "[Government] should declare an FMD-control area that stipulates any movement protocol, and what can and can't be done," La Marque of Kwanalu told IRIN. "Without that, we're sitting in the unknown... it really is a necessary declaration and would bring clarity to the situation."

Modisane said the government would define an FDM-control area once it had established the exact extent of the outbreak.

Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which has its powerbase in the province, alleged that the outbreak was caused by South Africa's porous borders with Swaziland and Mozambique.

"The fence between Ingwavuma (a town in the north of the province close to the Swaziland border) and the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast was vandalised over the last few years and has not been reconstructed despite funds being allocated for this purpose," said Henry Combrinck, the IFP shadow provincial minister for agriculture, environmental affairs and rural development in a statement.

DAFF spokesperson Bokaba denied that the broken fence was to blame for the outbreak, but said the department was committed to repairing it.


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