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FOOD: More milk and meat at a price

lead photo
JOHANNESBURG, 5 July 2012 (IRIN) - Only 13 diseases or infections
transmitted from animals to humans like tuberculosis (TB) and Rift
Valley fever, are responsible for around 2.4 billion cases of human
illness and 2.2 million deaths per year, mostly in low- and
middle-income countries.

In the least developed countries, 20 percent of human sickness and
death was due to zoonoses - diseases that had recently jumped species
from animals to people - according to a new study by the International
Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), based in Nairobi, Kenya, the
Institute of Zoology in Britain, and the Hanoi School of Public Health
in Vietnam.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has noted

that at least 61 percent of all human diseases, and 75 percent of
emerging infectious diseases, are zoonotic or caused by a bacterium,
virus, fungus or other communicable disease agent picked up from an
animal source.

While zoonoses can be transmitted to people by either wild or
domesticated animals, and at times domestic animals also crossbreed
with those in the wild, most human infections are acquired from the
world's 24 billion livestock, including pigs, poultry, cattle, goats,
sheep and camels.

The new study mapped poverty, livestock-keeping, hunger and zoonoses,
and found a strong link between them. The good news is that most of the
burden of zoonoses, and the opportunities for tackling them, are found
in just a few countries - Ethiopia, Nigeria and India. These three
countries not only have the highest number of poor livestock-keepers,
but also the highest number of malnourished people.

Over 600 million people living on less than two dollars a day, who
depend on animals to some extent, are found in South Asia, mostly in
India. Sub-Saharan Africa has over 300 million poor livestock-keepers,
concentrated in East and West Africa, and fewer in southern and central

In a survey of 28 countries identified as geographical hotpots for
zoonoses by the study, Ethiopia tops the list of countries where
Leptospirosis - haemorrhagic jaundice - is prevalent. Nigeria is
saddled with the highest burden of Query fever (Q fever), a bacterial
infection that can affect the lungs, liver, heart and other parts of
the body.

Why we need to worry about zoonoses in poor countries
12 percent of animals have recent or current brucellosis infections,
reducing production by 8 percent
10 percent of livestock in Africa are infected with trypanosomosis -
sleeping sickness - reducing their production by 15 percent
7 percent of livestock are infected with tuberculosis (TB), reducing
their production by 6 percent, and 3-10 percent of human TB cases may
be caused by zoonotic TB
17 percent of pigs on smallholder farms show signs of current infection
with cysticercosis - tapeworm - reducing their value and creating the
enormous burden of human cysticercosis
27 percent of livestock show signs of current or past infection with
bacterial food-borne diseases, a major source of food contamination and
illness in people
26 percent of livestock show signs of current or past leptospirosis
infection - affecting milk production and calving - reducing production
and acting as a reservoir for infection
25 percent of livestock show signs of current or past Q fever infection
Source: ILRI
India has a heavy burden of Brucellosis - which causes spontaneous
abortion in animals, and in humans leads to severe joint pain and
weakness, and can become chronic if untreated - as well as TB, Q fever,
and illnesses caused by food-borne bacteria, such as salmonella, which
can also be fatal.

The goal of the research was to identify areas where better control of
zoonotic diseases would most benefit poor people.

Among the high-priority studies of transmitted diseases were "endemic
zoonoses" like brucellosis, which cause most cases of illness and
recorded deaths in poor countries; "epidemic zoonoses", which typically
occur as outbreaks, such as anthrax and Rift Valley fever; and the
relatively rare "emerging zoonoses" like bird flu. Of the emerging
zoonoses, HIV/AIDS has had by far the most severe global impact.

Higher demand

A rising demand for milk and meat, prompted by a growing population and
higher incomes in developing countries, has led to the practice of
keeping more animals in smaller and often unhygienic enclosures - a
major factor in the spread and growth of zoonoses.

The selection and breeding of livestock in these conditions, without
proper care, creates an environment where a new pathogen (an infectious
bacterium, virus or other agent) can develop and infect the animals.
The study also found that systems for disease control and reporting
were relatively weak in these countries.

Animals are often transported for long distances and over extensive
routes, and sold live either along the way or at the destination, with
poor waste management during transportation - which all contribute to
the birth and transmission of infections.

One of the biggest threats is posed by the booming trade in poultry and
pigs. Ongoing research is being led by the International Food Policy
Research Institute (IFPRI), which is part of a global research network
funded partly by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural
Research (CGIAR). "Historically, high-density pig and poultry
populations have been important in maintaining and mixing influenza
populations," said John McDermott, director of the CGIAR Research
Programme on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health.

"A major concern is that as new livestock systems intensify,
particularly in small- and medium-sized pig production, more intensive
systems will allow the maintenance and transmission of pathogens. A
number of new zoonoses, such as Nipah virus infections, have emerged in
that way."

Nipah virus, first identified on pig farms in Malaysia, and the related
Hendra virus, which has particularly affected horses, can cause
pneumonia and encephalitis in humans. A million pigs were culled in
Malaysia to get rid of the virus.

Should we all become vegetarians?

More pigs and poultry "will lead to more, cheaper food, which is on the
whole good for poor people. At the same time, they may lead to more
disease, which is bad. Scientists can provide evidence, but societies
need to have a conversation about the benefits, risks and trade-offs
for keeping livestock," Delia Grace, a researcher at the livestock
research institute and lead author of the new study, told IRIN via

"For sure, there are both benefits and harms associated with producing
any food type. It is important to factor in the cost of disease when
assessing the benefits of more livestock, and to support systems which
are "disease-proofed" - that is, designed in such a way as to minimize
disease risks," she noted.

"We already have some ideas on how to do this. However, more livestock
food (which could be milk and eggs, not just meat) has great potential
in alleviating the 'hidden hunger' of micro-nutrient deficiency, which
is such a huge problem in India and other countries."

Livestock can bring advantages. "At least one in two poor households
benefits from livestock-keeping, and the benefits are big - [they can
contribute from] 12 to 38 percent of household income. Our best
estimates are that at least half the poor families get a quarter of
their income from livestock - that's big! Poor people don't get much of
their calories from livestock, but livestock products are not best used
in providing calories - cheap staple foods, like rice, are better for
that," Grace pointed out.

"But livestock can provide high biological value protein, and vitamins
and minerals that staple foods are deficient in. Hence, a contribution
of 6-36 percent of total protein in the diet is quite important. But we
certainly need more research on the appropriate role of livestock
products in the diets of the poor, and especially of children. We are
currently looking at which type of production is best for poor
children's nutrition: is it milk and dairy, or fish, or monogastric
[animals with a single stomach, like pigs and poultry]?"


Public agricultural extension services to support farmers in developing
countries need to step up to prevent the growth and transmission of
zoonoses. "They [extension services] have been neglected and
underfunded in many countries. There is also an important role for the
media, and for NGOs and civil society. We find that many people in the
food chain are 'well-intentioned but ill-informed', and big
improvements are possible if people are given more information and
simple solutions, like. cheap tests for food safety," Grace said.

"The ongoing technology revolution offers great opportunity for this.
For example, encouraging people to report diseases and get advice using
special mobile phone apps [applications], or thermo-sensitive stickers
that change colour if food is kept at the wrong temperature," she wrote
in her email.


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