The Sunday Mail
Prince Mushawevato and Veronica Gwaze
Heavy rains during the just-ended summer season brought welcome relief to areas that had largely been parched owing to two successive years of drought.
But they also brought an unwanted problem — cattle diseases. While Government is progressively winning the war against theileriosis (January Disease) and anthrax due to improved supply of dipping chemicals and tick grease, lumpy skin disease (LSD) — a seasonal viral disease — continues to trouble farmers.
Unfortunately, the normal to above-normal rains in the summer cropping season created favourable conditions for lumpy skin vector multiplication.
According to the Veterinary Services Department (VSD), there was a 100 percent increase in the number of cattle infected by LSD between October 2020 and March this year.
The average fatality case rate predictably rose to about 11 percent of the national herd during the same period, up from an average 5,6 percent.
LSD is usually transmitted by biting flies and occurs during and after the wet season.
It is characterised by an eruption of variably sized skin nodules, swelling of the limbs and lymph nodes.
The disease has no cure and causes irreparable damage to the animal hide.
But it is no longer a problem for farmers only, as meat from the diseased animals is slowly finding its way into many kitchens around the country through unregistered butcheries and illegal meat vendors.
It seems desperate farmers, unscrupulous butchery owners and illegal meat traders have forged a thriving parallel market for meat, some of which is suspected to be contaminated.
“I have since stopped buying beef, particularly in local butcheries. Most of the owners are targeting farmers with sick cattle because of the supposed ‘lucrative’ business opportunities. They buy infected cattle at times for as low as US$80. It is better to buy pork or chicken,” said Gracious Mavambo, who resides in Macheke.
A former butchery owner (name withheld) at Makoni Shopping Centre in Chitungwiza had some disturbing revelations.
He was forced to close his business after a sting operation involving VSD officials, police and other Government agencies.
“I was careful not to buy anthrax-infected cattle. Most of those I purchased would have been affected by January Disease or lumpy skin, which is not harmful to humans,” he said.
“I knew it was wrong, but I wanted to rescue my business which was fast sinking. The super-profits led me on until I got arrested together with one of the farmers who was supplying me at that time. That is how my meat business eventually collapsed.”
Maria Kadzere, an informal meat vendor operating in one of Harare’s high-density areas, said she gets her stock from Mhondoro.
However, she is not proud of what she does.
“We are a group of eight vendors, so we put our money together, buy a beast every week and share the meat, which we then sell. But, due to the challenging economic situation, we often look for the cheapest cattle on offer.
“Sadly, it is these infected cattle . . . that present best business prospects for us. For instance, we need not less than US$400 for a healthy beast while a sick cow can cost as little as US$100 or less,” she said.
More than a year ago, Government clamped down on several butcheries after an investigation by The Sunday Mail Society unearthed an unholy network that was selling contaminated meat on the market.
Some of the mischievous retailers were even using embalming chemicals as meat preservatives in order to give it a long shelf life.
Authorities believe that it is also incumbent upon communities to report such illegal practices.
“The community are our eyes and ears. Reporting these activities will assist us in bringing the culprits to book,” said Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Resettlement’s department of livestock and veterinary services director Dr Jairus Machakwa.
“A lot of people in the communities live or interact with these culprits, hence we need their input if we are to successfully fight this rot. We are aware that there are criminals selling contaminated meat. People should be warned that if this meat is consumed, it has serious health complications.”
He advised farmers against panic-slaughtering of affected cattle, as most can be treated through professional assistance.
Although lumpy skin affects livestock productivity, it is understood to have a low fatality rate, estimated around five in every 100 infected cattle.
A broad spectrum of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs for secondary bacterial infections are usually administered.
There are also several drugs that can be used to successfully treat cattle infected by January Disease, anthrax or any other ailments.
“We encourage farmers to have their cattle vaccinated every year before the rainy season. Some prefer vaccinating the cattle on their own. However, some retail shops have run out of the drugs largely due to the outbreak. But our department has made sure that we always have at least seven weeks’ supply of dipping chemicals at every station around the country,” Dr Machakwa said.
“For anyone whose cow falls sick, the first step is to administer medication, then if it gets worse, they dispose or slaughter it. However, what most people do not understand is that these medicines render the cow unfit for consumption. If it dies, they must either bury or burn it.”
Medical experts opine lumpy skin disease is capable of infecting humans with direct transmission after consumption of contaminated meat.
Hundreds of people were last year hospitalised countrywide for health complications that developed after consuming meat from unofficial sources.
However, some communities have become pro-active. Headman Zvinowanda Pfumbidzai of Machera Village, Hwedza, said villagers are now burning carcasses of diseased animals.
“At least 60 beasts have been affected by lumpy skin in my jurisdiction this farming season. However, the village is on high alert for criminal elements who might want to sell their infected beasts.
“We used to sell these cattle to butchery owners or slaughter them for consumption, but that stopped after the vet department and police warned us about the danger to human life. We now burn or bury the carcasses as a community,” said Headman Pfumbidzai.
Biotech Health Group chief executive officer Dr Takudzwa Mutsvanga said consuming contaminated meat has both short- and long-term health effects. In worst cases, unsuspected consumers risk developing antimicrobial resistance to antibiotics.
“Most people think that if they consume the meat today and do not get sick the following day, then they are safe. But that is wrong. Some of the effects are noted when one falls ill some months or years later. Usually this will be when administered medication fail to perform expected purpose. In some instances, people develop health complications like cancer,” said Dr Mutsvanga.
It is not wise, he added, to purchase meat products from street vendors or unregistered butcheries.
Meat consumers are ordinarily encouraged to check for operating licences and health inspection approvals. More than 450 000 cattle have been lost over the past year to a combination of disease, drought and panic-slaughtering.
January Disease (theileriosis) is accounting for most of the deaths, followed by anthrax and lumpy skin disease.