Climate shifts linked to rise in animal diseases in people

by Kagondu Njagi | @DavidNjagi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 2 July 2013 15:37 GMT

A farmer and one of his cows in Kenya. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Kagondu Njagi

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Smallholder farmers attempting to adapt to climate change are facing new threat of animal diseases from their own livestock

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Smallholder farmers who have settled on intensive agriculture as a way to adapt to climate change are facing threats to their health and livelihoods from animal diseases previously thought to have been eliminated, experts warn.

Kenya is no exception to these new pressures on the lives of the struggling poor. According to experts from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), diseases such as anthrax, Rift Valley fever and sleeping sickness are now common in regions experiencing climate shifts.

A recent report by ILRI mapping hotspots for zoonoses—diseases that can be passed from animals to humans—indicates that regions experiencing extreme rainfall or prolonged drought are particularly susceptible to outbreaks.

Zoonotic diseases account for 60 percent of all human diseases and around 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases, says the report.

Humans and domestic animals are living in increasingly closer contact due to a decline in arable land, the experts say.

As land becomes scarcer, “families are being forced to squeeze together with their livestock, hence increasing the risk of zoonotic diseases,” explains Jimmy Smith, ILRI’s director general.

Ephantus Nkari from Chiambaraga village in lower Eastern Kenya counts himself lucky to be alive after he contracted anthrax from eating meat from one of his cows.

In 2011, when Kenya was experiencing one of its worst ever droughts, Nkari lost his 40 cows, 18 goats and 15 sheep because he could no longer feed them.

“It pained me to see the last of my herd die,” says the 60-year-old father of six. “I said to myself that it would be better to slaughter the cow and feed my family rather than see them suffer from hunger. I roasted and ate the meat but within hours I started vomiting and had acute diarrhoea.”

Anthrax can kill within days, but Nkari’s neighbours rushed him to hospital, where he was given treatment that enabled him to recover.

Luckily, Nkari’s wife and children were away at the time, having gone to borrow food from relatives, and they did not eat the infected beef.

Experts warn that it is not only through consumption that zoonotic diseases can be passed to humans. Some are airborne while others jump species through contact with bodily fluids, explains Steve Kemp, a molecular geneticist at the University of Liverpool in the UK.

Trypanosomiasis, a disease that affects cattle, is passed to humans through the bite of the tse tse fly, an insect associated with heavy rains and decreasing habitats, Kemp explains.

In a study last year looking at the role of livestock in developing countries, ILRI researchers concluded that “zoonotic diseases jumped species when people changed ways of farming and keeping livestock”.

“There is a link between climate change and zoonotic diseases because pressure on arable land increases the range in which diseases and pests can spread,” argues Enos Esikuri, an environmental specialist with the World Bank.

According to Esikuri, infectious diseases that were not common a decade ago are on the rise in areas experiencing extreme humidity or drought in Kenya and other countries in the Horn of Africa.

“This is because Africa is thought to be the last agricultural frontier, hence the scramble for land by multinational companies to produce for export,” he says. “But this is leaving countries even more vulnerable to climate change, food insecurity, inflation, high cost of living and instability.”

The Kenya Land Alliance, a nongovernmental organisation, argues that communities are usually excluded when decisions concerning the rental or sale of their land to foreign investors are made, leading to large numbers of people being displaced from their homes.

However, not everyone is convinced there is a link between climate change and zoonotic diseases.

Staff at the Kenya Network for Draught Animal Technology (KENDAT), an NGO that works for the welfare of domestic animals in Kenya, say they link the spread of zoonotic disease to a decline in agricultural extension services and the lack of government-sponsored veterinary doctors to attend to domestic animals.

“I do not think (the) rise in zoonotic diseases is due to climate change but probably loss in terms of services for animal health at farm level,” argues Pascal Kaumbutho, KENDAT’s chief executive officer. “More research is needed to find the link with climate change.”

But Kaumbutho acknowledges that migratory pests are now more common because of what he suspects to be climate shifts, and that it is becoming very difficult to predict how they swarm. 

“As the climate becomes warmer the insects that used to operate at very low altitude are beginning to come up the hill and farmers are getting real shocks on this,” he says.

Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.

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