‘Govt will ensure outbreaks do not spread further’

Of late, Malawi has seen a rise in outbreaks in the agriculture sector. Fall armyworms ravaged maize crop last year, Foot and Mouth disease is attacking cattle in the Lower Shire while red locust last month invaded Mulanje. There are now reports that Highly Pathological Avian Influenza (HPAI), also known as ‘Bird Flu’ has been detected and reported in a number of countries neighbouring Malawi. FATSANI GUNYA spoke to Erica Maganga, Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development to explain some means of minimising the damage of these outbreaks. Excerpts:

Maganga: The ministry is on top of things

Let us start with bird flu outbreak. Is Malawi at threat?

Yes. Malawi and other neighbouring countries are currently under serious threat of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) disease attack following recent confirmed and reported outbreaks in the DRC, Zimbabwe and South Africa. DRC confirmed the outbreak on May 26 this year with HPAI virus (H5) as a causal agent, while South Africa reported and confirmed its outbreak on June 22. On the other hand, Zimbabwe confirmed and reported the outbreak on June 1.

The threat for Malawi is real due to the presence of potential risk factors that include porous borders, large susceptible domestic bird population and illegal movement of animal and animal products. There is also the relaxed surveillance after long period of inactivity with respect to bird flu outbreaks. Malawi is also along the main route of migratory birds and presence of wetlands. On the other hand, the  recently reported cases of the Foot and Mouth Disease in cattle as detected in the Lower Shire already puts over 10 000 cattle at risk of being infected.

So far what has been the extent of the damage in cattle as regards the Foot and Mouth disease in the Lower Shire?

Close to 40 cases of the outbreak had been reported cases at Mthumba and Tomali dip tanks in Chikwawa district where the first case was identified on August 24. A report on the on-going preliminary investigation conducted by veterinary field staff from the Shire Valley Agricultural Development Division (ADD) and the ministry indicates that the cases were detected across eight kraals.

Experts in the ministry say buffaloes are the vector of the causative agent of the highly contagious viral Foot and Mouth disease which is easily passed onto cattle when the two species graze on the same land. Thus the Lower Shire is often susceptible especially in the dry season as wild buffaloes from the surrounding forests [Majete Game Reserve] trek down in search of water points.

So how prepared is the country in dealing with these outbreaks?

We intensified prevention measures through various interventions that include the enforcement of importation restrictions/ ban of poultry and poultry products from infected countries namely Zimbabwe, DRC and recently South Africa. As regards the Foot and Mouth outbreak among us, we have since imposed an immediate ban on all beef and beef products, among others, from the area in conformity with the Control and Animal Diseases Act.

Will the bans not impact on the economy?

We know this has got some serious socio-economic consequences if not timely controlled but then, the World Health Organisation [WHO] guidelines mandate us to take strict preventive measures in such times. Besides, we take issues of public health very seriously as a ministry. We have now temporarily suspended all livestock markets and the ban has also spilled over to all livestock slaughters from, in and around the Lower Shire. Also, as a Ministry, we are no longer be issuing livestock movement permits from the affected areas and has already instituted road blocks and patrols at strategic points in the affected area to ensure compliance.

Some have faulted the ministry of hiding crucial information in times of outbreaks. Are there any changes at the ministry so that information is easily accessible by farmers and the public?

The ministry always remains committed to inform the general public about any issue of public interests in terms of agriculture and their [people’s] general well being. We have a Department of Agricultural Extension Services that deal directly with the farmers. There is also the Agricultural Communications Branch whose mandate is to inform the farmers on various best practices in the sector.

However, challenges do prevail despite our efforts. In view of the outbreaks, the public is being reached out through press releases and media sensitisation through production of messages (for radio and newspapers).

 What other preventive measures are you taking to contain an outbreak of bird flu?

This is probably where we have invested our time and resources much as a ministry. So far, other preparedness measures include reactivation of rapid response teams and plans, intensification of surveillance for early detection and response. We have also worked towards strengthening of the country’s diagnostic capacity for screening and confirmation of the animal diseases and also engaging key stakeholders as part of resource mobilisation. But most importantly, the ministry is doing everything possible to ensure that the disease (bird flu) is not introduced in the country. n

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