Elita chikwati Senior Reporter
EIGHTY-SEVEN people have been hospitalised after eating meat from cattle affected by anthrax.
The disease has so far claimed about 177 beasts.
Anthrax is a life-threatening infectious disease caused by bacteria that normally affects animals, especially ruminants such as cattle, but being a bacteria, it is easily treatable with antibiotics if detected in time.
Zimbabwe usually experiences anthrax outbreaks during the rainfall season because rains wash away the top soil and expose spores that can remain dormant in the soil for over 40 years.
Livestock, particularly cattle, take up anthrax bacteria while grazing on contaminated land. People get infected when they handle or eat anthrax-infected meat.
Signs of anthrax include sudden death of livestock, rapid decomposition of the bloated carcasses and tarry blood coming out of all natural openings.
Blood from a contaminated carcass is brownish and does not clot.
During this season, anthrax outbreaks have been recorded in Gokwe, Nkayi, Gutu, Bikita, Marondera, Mazowe, Chegutu, Makonde and Sanyati.
In Makonde, there was an unconfirmed report of one person dying, while 64 were hospitalised, while in Masvingo Province’s Bikita District, 28 people were reportedly diagnosed with the disease at different clinics.
Acting director for the Division of Veterinary Field Services Dr Wilmot Chikurunhe said anthrax was being detected in traditional outbreak areas and not affecting the whole districts.
Traditional anthrax areas tend to see outbreaks quite often because of the long life of the spores, but unless infected cattle are moved and die elsewhere, contaminating more soil, the disease does not spread.
Dr Chikurunhe said the disease was restricted to certain areas, although the vaccination coverage was extended to a wider area to contain the outbreak.
“Cattle owners in anthrax areas should ensure their cattle are vaccinated against the disease once a year before the rainy season,” he said. “The department comes in to prevent massive outbreaks, but the primary responsibility for disease prevention lies with the owner.”
Dr Chikurunhe said anthrax carcasses should be disposed of in a manner that did not leave the bacteria exposed to air.
The best method is to burn the carcasses in a pit, then bury the ashes.
But some parts of the country have firewood problems and in such areas, it is recommended to dig a six feet deep pit, cover the carcass completely with soil, apply a layer of agricultural lime (it excludes oxygen) before filling the rest of the pit with soil.
Dr Chikurunhe said this was best done under the supervision of veterinary personnel.
Anthrax bacteria stays in the soil for many years in a dormant form and once it is exposed to oxygen, it changes to a form that infects animals and humans.
“For this reason, safe disposal of anthrax carcasses is important and anthrax graves must be marked to prevent accidental excavation in future,” said Dr Chikurunhe.
He said so far, no human cases of the disease had been traced to consumption of meat from a registered butchery or supermarket.
All cases are related to meat obtained from informal village sales.
“The sale of meat in butcheries and supermarkets is regulated under the Public Health Act, which is administered by the Ministry of Health and Child Care,” said Dr Chikurunhe.
“Inspection of butcheries for compliance is carried out by public health officers from the same ministry.
“Once an outbreak is confirmed, the area is placed under movement quarantine and no permits are issued to move animals out of the area or to slaughter facilities.”
During an outbreak, officials from both the Ministry of Health and Child Care and the Department of Veterinary Services jointly monitor that meat being sold in butcheries is coming from a registered facility and is fit for human consumption.
“The sale of meat outside a registered butchery is an offence under the same Act,” said Dr Chikurunhe. “The public is discouraged from buying meat at informal markets as they risk contracting anthrax and other diseases.”
Dr Chikurunhe said his department had enough vaccines to respond to outbreaks.
Already, vaccines have been dispatched to all provinces affected and vaccination has either been completed or is ongoing in such areas, and those at risk of contracting the disease.
“Treasury is facilitating payment for additional vaccines to cover areas that are considered traditional anthrax areas, but have not reported outbreaks,” he said.
The vaccination campaign is combined with awareness campaigns jointly organised with the Ministry of Health and Child Care.
In outbreak areas, some farmers fail to come to terms with the loss of cattle and try to salvage value from the carcasses, in the process, failing to report cattle deaths to veterinary authorities.
Farmers are advised to report sick animals and animal deaths to the nearest veterinary offices, not to open animals that die on their own or of disease, and not to eat meat from such animals.
Dr Chikurunhe said the public should not move animals or meat illegally from infected areas.
Zimbabwe Farmers Union (ZFU) executive director Mr Paul Zakariya said they had received reports of anthrax outbreaks and urged farmers to vaccinate their livestock.
“We discourage farmers from consuming meat from animals that would have died from unknown causes,” he said. “Farmers should vaccinate their livestock and work closely with veterinary officers to curb the spread of the disease.”
Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union (ZCFU) president Mr Wonder Chabikwa said: “Some farmers are not aware of the difference between tick-borne diseases and anthrax and this causes challenges.
“Farmers should seek assistance from local veterinary officers. Selling the cattle to unsuspecting people causes a health hazard. There is need for a lot of interaction between farmers and veterinary officers.”
Livestock expert and farmer, Mr Solomon Zawe said farmers should dip, dose and vaccinate their livestock even when there was no disease outbreak.
“Farmers should follow the vaccination calendar,” he said. “Another challenge is that we are attached to our livestock and we do not want to sell. Instead of selling part of the herd to get money to buy feeds and vaccines, we maintain the large herd which may later be affected by diseases.”
Mr Zawe said the veterinary department should be capacitated to deal with disease outbreaks.