Down To Earth reports from Rajasthan and Delhi on how outbreaks like Lumpy Skin Disease have harsh economic and food security implications and can pose a major threat to human health
In Rajasthan’s Malkisar village, the sense of facing a pandemic is not yet over; only the species has changed.
Bablu Godara describes a scene that has become an everyday occurrence at the village — bodies of dead cows being dragged, sometimes in pairs, through the road by trucks to be disposed of at an already overfilled hadda rodi (a place where dead animals are dumped) or open spaces near the village.
The trucks then return for the next lot. This was unthinkable four months ago, says Bablu, when the village first started witnessing cows develop nodules, fever and then dying within weeks.
Soon, about a dozen animals began dying every day. “We consider a cow like a mother. If one dies, the household does not eat till the cow is buried. Many people even go to Haridwar for post-death rituals,” he moans.
Bablu’s village Malkisar is in Bikaner, a district that has emerged as the epicentre of the latest outbreak of lumpy skin disease — a viral infection that afflicts cattle and water buffalo. There is no treatment for this disease, although the symptoms can be managed and healthy animals recover.
“So widespread was the outbreak at its peak in July-August that it was difficult to arrange for transport to take the bodies to the hadda rodi. There was chaos all around. We begged tractor operators in our village for help. One finally agreed to transport the bodies for Rs 300 per km per animal,” says Bablu’s sister Pooja Godara. Their family lost five of their 17 heads of cattle to the disease in August.
The lumpy skin disease virus is a poxvirus that belongs to the same genus as sheep pox and goat pox viruses. It spreads through blood-sucking insects like mosquitoes, flies and ticks as well as through saliva and contaminated water and food.
The disease is characterised by 2-5 cm-wide nodules that appear all over the body, particularly around the head, neck, udders and genitals. The lumps open up into large, deep wounds. The virus also causes prolonged morbidity.
It also spreads quite rapidly. Within 16 months of India’s first case — reported from Odisha in 2019 — the disease had spread to 15 states. But the spread of the current wave, which began in April-May, has been exponential, as has the mortality rate.
As of September 23, the disease has claimed nearly 0.1 million head of cattle and infected over 2 million in 251 districts across 16 states, according to the Union Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying.
The number of deaths due to lumpy skin disease this year is 20 times the fatalities that occurred last year due to India’s three major cattle diseases: foot and mouth disease (4,881 deaths), haemorrhagic septicaemia (98 deaths) and anthrax (84 deaths).
“The only disease to cause such havoc in cattle in the past was rinderpest, which was eradicated globally in 2011,” says Bhupendra Nath Tripathi, deputy director general, animal sciences, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Delhi.
Though there is no cure, the disease has preventive vaccines, which the state governments are trying to administer to cattle populations.
Currently, the country uses the goat pox vaccine to protect against lumpy skin disease.
In August, ICAR announced an indigenous vaccine for the disease, which has been approved for use. But its commercial production is yet to begin.
On the other hand, there are indications that the viral strain currently in circulation may have genetic mutations.
“The genome for poxvirus is very large. If the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 has about 30,000 nucleotides (building blocks of DNA), the poxvirus has 1,51,000,” explains Naveen Kumar, principal scientist at ICAR-National Research Centre on Equines, Hisar, Haryana.
He adds that as genetic mutations occur, each and every strain is slightly different from others, but serologically they cross check with each other.
“Some strains are highly pathogenic, some are mild, some may be deadly pathogenic. ICAR is sequencing the lumpy skin disease viral strain samples from 2019, 2021 and 2022 to compare the changes taking place in the genome over time and pinpoint the kind of genetic differences, but it is difficult to determine which strain is responsible for high pathogenicity,” Kumar adds.
Genetic differences in the viral strain may be responsible for newer complications in cattle affected this time.
For instance, Prabhu Nath, a resident of Pimperan village, Bikaner district, observed that one of his cows experienced blindness a few days after being infected with lumpy skin disease.
The partial loss in vision is affecting its health as it is not able to eat properly. At least three doctors that Down To Earth (DTE) spoke to say they have seen cases of blindness after lumpy skin disease, but they cannot confirm the main cause for this, because this effect has no prior mention in literature related to the disease.
“Blindness could happen due to corneal opacity. Some cases are being reported but we do not have much data on this,” says Tripathi of ICAR.
Some have also reported kidney and heart ailments in cattle after recovery from the disease.
Sohan Lal from Urmul Setu Sansthan, a non-profit working with cattle rearers in Bikaner, takes periodic blood samples from cattle to monitor milk, as part of a project with the National Dairy Development Board.
“In the initial days, when we injected needles, we could feel a change in the body of the cattle infected with the disease. It felt like inserting syringes into rubber. We still do not know what the infection is capable of and what it has done to their system,” Lal says.
In the last week of September, DTE visited six villages in three districts of Rajasthan, the state worst-hit by lumpy skin disease in the current surge.
Of the total 97,435 cattle deaths in India till September 23, as many as 64,311 were from Rajasthan, which is home to the second highest livestock population and sixth highest cattle population in the country.
Of the two million affected animals, 1.4 million were reported from the state, followed by Punjab with 0.17 million and Gujarat with 0.16 million. To control the spread of lumpy skin disease, infected animals should be quarantined.
Since the latest outbreak began, officials from the animal husbandry department and veterinarians appointed in affected regions have been advising the same to residents.
But in the six villages that DTE visited, a majority of the households did not have enough space to keep infected and non-infected animals separately. In some cases, five to six animals were tied up together in a tiny shed.
The livestock sector is critical for scores of farmers in the state, and the infection has caused significant economic damage. In Daulatpura village of Sri Ganganagar district, Iqbal Singh and his wife Harpinder Kaur lost their Holstein-Friesian cow to the disease in August.
It was the only dairy cattle they owned and the source of their primary income.
“We bought it for Rs 55,000 last year; currently it costs Rs 80,000 in the market. It was healthy, giving 10-11 litres of milk two times a day. It was about to deliver a calf before it contracted lumpy skin disease and succumbed to the infection,” says Singh.
The family’s secondary income comes from growing cotton, which too has suffered because of a whitefly attack in September. In all the three districts, DTE found that most deaths took place in pregnant or more productive breeds of cattle.
A 2017 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) mentions that cows with high milk production are usually the most severely affected by lumpy skin disease. Farmers in all six villages DTE visited reported a significant drop in milk production even days after the cattle recovered from the disease.
In some cases, the cattle have become debilitated. Take the case of Laalri, a cow named after its red coat, which belongs to Bikaner resident Lakshmi Devi. In July, Devi noticed swellings on Laalri’s legs and within a day, its body was covered with lumps.
The local veterinarian advised Devi to isolate Laalri. However, since her house does not have much space, Devi could only manage to keep Laalri at a spot 6 metres away from her other cows. In the next five days, lumps appeared on two more cows.
“Laalri was alright till a day before the lumps started to appear. It suddenly fell sick and stopped producing milk. Then we learnt that other cows in the village are also falling sick,” says Devi, who hails from 1 LKD (Lunkaransar Distributary) village in Lunkaransar taluka.
Her family of five depend on livestock breeding for their livelihood. They have 13 cows, of which four were producing 40 litres of milk before the virus struck, providing an income of Rs 1,400 per day.
Now, their milk supply has come down by a huge 33 litres per day, leading to a direct income loss of Rs 1,155 daily. Only two cows produce 7 litres of milk a day. Laalri has lost over 100 kg and requires assistance to even stand on its own feet.
FAO too states that after contracting the disease, animals may become debilitated for up to six months, with a drop in milk production, caused by loss of feed intake due to mouth lesions.
Milk production could drop between 26 per cent and 42 per cent in indigenous cattle and up to 50 per cent in exotic breeds, as the former are considered to have better immunity and disease resistance.
Another worry among cattle owners is the marks and lesions left on the skin even after recovery, which will deteriorate the value of the animal if it is ever sold for either milk or hide.
Laalri, which was named after the red colour of its coat, had not recovered even by the second week of September and had lost the colour and the shine of its hair.
A 2020 FAO report that estimates the economic losses of lumpy skin disease in south, east and southeast Asian countries says that the detection of an exotic disease may have severe trade implications. “Asian exports of live cattle and buffalo meat and meat products, dairy products and hides accounted for USD 5.5 billion in 2017,” it adds.
Lumpy skin disease has wreaked havoc in India at a time when the country is faced with outbreak of another livestock disease — African swine fever — a highly contagious haemorrhagic viral infection that afflicts domestic and wild pigs and boars with a 100 per cent mortality rate.
It was first reported in Kenya in 1921 and has since spread to Europe, Russia, China and Myanmar. India had managed to avert the virus for a century, with the first case only reported in 2020.
The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), an intergovernmental organisation established in 1924 to “focus on transparently disseminating information on animal diseases, improving animal health globally” published the first report of African swine fever in India in early 2020 in Assam.
Since then, it has spread to 17 other states, as per FAO’s “African swine fever (ASF) situation update in Asia & Pacific”.
There is no cure or vaccine to contain African swine fever virus that spreads through soft ticks and quickly engulfs the entire pig population. The only way to contain it is to cull the infected and in-contact pigs and bury them in lime-treated deep trenches.
“Both lumpy skin disease and African swine fever have fully set foot in India,” says Tripathi. “We cannot afford any new disease in the country now,” he adds.
Bengaluru’s National Institute of Veterinary Epidemiology and Disease Informatics (NIVEDI), the only institute in the country that monitors and conducts surveillance of animal diseases, has identified 13 priority livestock diseases.
Lumpy skin disease and African swine fever are not yet in the list. These 13 have become endemic to the country and are highly contagious, with a high mortality rate.
Though treatments and vaccines are available for most of them, the prevalence of the diseases is still high, which raises questions about the efficacy of the vaccine programme.
A 2012 study in Andhra Pradesh by the National Academy of Agricultural Research Management, Hyderabad, under ICAR, says farmers report that foot and mouth disease outbreaks persist despite vaccination.
Data with NIVEDI, which has prepared projections til 2027, show that the outbreaks of at least six livestock diseases are likely to go up in coming years; four of them are caused by parasites.
These are fascioliasis (a parasitic infection also known as common liver fluke that causes inflammation of the bile ducts, gall bladder), theileriosis (a tick-borne protozoan parasitic infection that causes fever and enlarged lymph nodes), trypanosomiasis (a parasitic infection that causes anaemia and enlarged lymph nodes), babesiosis (a tick-borne parasitic disease that causes life-threatening infection of red blood cells), enterotoxaemia or overeating disease (a bacterial disease manifested by brown, watery diarrhoea, collapse or sudden death) and peste des petits ruminants or PPR (an acute viral disease of goats and sheep characterised by fever, gastroenteritis, pneumonia and sometimes death.
Etymologically, the word livestock comes from “live” (to be alive) and “stock” (inventory or, in this case, moveable property of a farm). It includes domesticated bred animals like cattle, buffalo, sheep, goat, horse, poultry, pig and yaks.
According to the latest Livestock Census for 2019, the country has 536.76 million livestock and the sector contributed 4.35 per cent of total gross value added in 2019-20.
India is in fact home to the world’s largest cattle population of 303 million. Farming these animals is the mainstay of most poorest farmers. In arid and semi-arid regions, the animals act as an insurance as they are more resilient to climate change impacts than crops.
Small and marginal farmers, who own less than 2 hectares (ha), have a higher share in livestock farming than their medium and large counterparts.
According to National Statistical Office’s (NSO) “Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households and Land and Livestock Holdings of Households in Rural India, 2019”, some 10.9 per cent of farmers with 0.01 ha are engaged in livestock production, as opposed to 1.2 per cent and 0.8 per cent of those with 4-10 ha and above 10 ha, respectively.
Marginal farmers are also more dependent on livestock for income. The NSO survey shows the sector has been a stable source of income across groups of agricultural households, accounting for about 15 per cent of their average monthly income. For households possessing less than 0.01 ha, the share of livestock farming in their total income is more than the income from crop production.
Recognising the increasing importance of allied sectors, the Committee on Doubling Farmers’ Income, an inter-ministerial committee constituted in April 2016, considers dairying, livestock, poultry, fisheries and horticulture as engines of high growth and recommends a focused policy for them.
While the sector has grown at a compound annual growth rate of 8.15 per cent between 2014-15 and 2019-20, the productivity of livestock sector is low in India compared to that in developed countries. One of the main factors behind this is poor livestock health due to multiple endemic diseases.
While there is no cumulative figure of the economic loss from livestock diseases, ICAR’S studies indicate an annual loss of above Rs 56,000 crore in a given year from four major diseases—peste des petits ruminants, foot and mouth disease, hemorrhagic septicemia and brucellosis. Add to these the economic loss caused by lumpy skin disease and African swine fever.
A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that the 0.1 million deaths from lumpy skin disease alone would have caused a direct economic loss of Rs 500 crore.
If one considers the loss of opportunity cost such as the loss on account of milk production due to the cattle deaths, loss in milk yield of recovered cattle, delay in next conception, loss in body mass, abortions in pregnant cattle and infertility in others, Tripathi says that lumpy skin disease must have caused a loss of Rs 2,000 crore by now. “And this is also an underestimation,” he adds.
This was first published in the 16-31 October, 2022 edition of Down To Earth
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