Theileriosis: A Cattle Killer Disease ravaging Zimbabwe

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Cattle under attack from theileriosis in Zimbabwe
Cattle under attack from theileriosis in Zimbabwe

Once regarded as the breadbasket of southern Africa, Zimbabwe is now infamous for its political and economic woes. More than three decades after independence, through bad political and economic policies, the breadbasket has gradually become an ’empty case’. The resurfacing of theileriosis, a fatal cattle disease, is a blow to Zimbabwe.

Ronnie Chisamba reports for the Solutions Tower.

An octogenarian’s sad story

Eighty-year-old Henry Masinire is a communal farmer. A resident of Mudyawabikwa village about 190km south east of the capital, Harare. Hukutu, as Masinire is affectionately known by his family and friends, was a proud owner of seven cattle. His personal inventory even included a cart and an ox-drawn plough. This was until theileriosis wiped out his cattle. Today, the old and fragile looking old man is sombre. The only testimony that he ever owned cattle is the empty kraal in front of his cooking hut.

In Chikomba district, Chivhu, (Masinire’ s rural home), theileriosis has left many lamenting over the loss of their wealth – their cattle. Investigations by The Solutions Tower have revealed that the situation in Chikomba is a tip of the iceberg. Since time immemorial, native Africans have depended on cattle and other domestic animals for status, work and other purposes. Loss of cattle is further pushing the general populace and the southern African state directly or indirectly into deplorable poverty.

The State-owned media outlet, the Herald, reported that Goromonzi, Bindura, Chivhu and Chegutu are the areas mostly affected by theileriosis. It is said that the disease had killed over 2 000 cattle at the time the Herald went to Press.

The impact of the high cattle mortality rate has a negative bearing on the country’s agriculture sector. Considering that there is very little noticeable activity in commercial farms (because of the land reform programme which was launched in an effort to address the land ownership imbalances which had been brought by colonisation), communal farmers have been playing an instrumental role in promoting the agriculture  industry.

Communal farmers mainly rely on cattle and donkeys for work and transport. Theileriosis has worsened the plight of peasant farmers. Ever escalating prices of inputs such as fertilisers and seeds will make it virtually impossible for them to farm this coming farming season.

Prices of cattle in the affected areas have gone down. The prices of donkeys, the alternative, has been hiked beyond the reach of many due to the high demand. For the communal farmer, it never rains but pours.

Government has, over the years, been offering communal farmers inputs, but the allocation falls short in fulfilling the input needs of farmers. Corruption is another stumbling block. Some people who are not even farmers get their hands on the inputs through corrupt means and end up selling the precious inputs for much less than wholesale prices.

Understanding theileriosis

According to an article by F.C. Munatswa (Veterinary Research Laboratory, Causeway, Harare, Zimbabwe), theileriosis is a tick-borne disease. The two main vectors are the brown ear tick, Rhipicephalus appendendiculatus and the lowveld brown ear tick, R. Zambeziensis.

Theileriosis is also known as January disease. The disease is common from January to March. At this period, the brown ear tick is at its maturity stage.

In the Herald article, Dr Josaphat Nyathi from the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement and Veterinary Services, pointed out that one of the major prevention methods is intensive dipping. Government is said to have produced 22 500 pamphlets as part of its awareness campaign. Investigations by the Solutions Tower show that most of the farmers in Chikomba district (one of the affected areas) did not get these pamphlets.

Experts recommend the use of buparvaquone (Butalex, Schering-Plough Animal Health, U.K) for the treatment of January disease. However, some argue the mortality rate is 30%-90%.

Cattle can be vaccinated against theileriosis using Rakshavac T Vaccine. The vaccine contains live schizont grown in the lymphoblast cell culture.

Signs of the January disease

Cloudiness of the eyes and difficulty in breathing (with froth from the nose and mouth) are some of the signs of theileriosis. The other signs are swelling of lymph nodes under the ears and on the shoulder. If the affected beast does not get treatment or fails to respond to treatment, it dies a few days after infection.

In Zimbabwe, the disease is a notifiable disease. It was successfully eradicated through government effort in 1954.

Will the deadly cattle disease be defeated again?

The prevailing harsh economic climate requires the current administration combating the disease to make it one of its chief priorities.

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