New Cattle Quarantine Order Triggers Confusion

Barely 10 days after lifting a five-month ban on the sale and movement of cloven-footed animals such as cattle due to a foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak, the Agriculture ministry has backtracked on the directive.

In a fresh communication to local authorities, the ministry said it had only okayed the “partial lifting” of the quarantine. According to the new directive, which was sent on December 9, the ministry has ordered district authorities not to permit massive movement of animals in the affected districts and to only allow the slaughter of animals in selected areas.

Last week, The Observer reported that the director for Animal Resources (DAR) in the ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, Dr Nicholas Kauta, had written a December 3 directive lifting the quarantine in the 28 districts affected by an outbreak of the viral disease (See: Cattle quarantine lifted on 28 districts).

Now, in the fresh communication from the acting commissioner for Animal Health, Dr Wesonga Wanderema, the ministry has asked each district veterinary officer (O) in the affected areas to make a formal request for the quarantine to be lifted after satisfying the ministry that the disease has been completely wiped out.

Among the benchmarks that districts are required to fulfil before the quarantine is fully lifted are the date of the last case of FMD, level of enforcement of compliance for movement of live animals, and an assessment of the level of vaccination compared to the number of animals in the area.

“Os are aised not [to] lift any quarantine restrictions until they submit the above information and get a further approval from the Commissioner,” wrote Dr Wesonga. “The lifting of the quarantine communicated recently by DAR is okay but we made it in general and needs further guidelines to enable you to operate at partial quarantine restrictions level.”

According to the communication, once a O has applied for the quarantine to be fully lifted in their district, the ministry will send its own team to verify the health of the animals in the area under quarantine restrictions.

Expected backlash

While the ministry initially said it had lifted the quarantine in response to successful efforts to combat the viral disease, the new directive implies that the early decision was rushed, with the festive season approaching. However, some of district veterinary officers have told The Observer that the partial quarantine would be difficult to implement at a time when cattle, goat and pig traders are looking to cash in on the increased demand for meat during the festive season.

One official, who requested anonymity, said the mixed messages from the ministry were unlikely to put the local authorities in a difficult situation.

“People are relying on the first communication so, there is no way you can reverse what was first issued,” complained the official.

“The ministry is going to put the lives of the veterinary officers in trouble. They can be murdered if they now try to stop cattle traders from transporting animals.”

Even before the quarantine was lifted, some unscrupulous businesspeople were already defying the local authorities by selling meat in broad daylight with impunity. (See: Banned beef, pork on sale as locals violate quarantine).

The shadow minister for Agriculture, Dr Francis Epetait, whose own Ngora constituency is affected, told The Observer that the partial lifting of the quarantine amounted to “window dressing” of a serious problem.

“They have not done enough to contain the disease in terms of vaccinating animals so, partial lifting is not the solution,” he observed. “If they had done rigorous intervention, we would have had total lifting long ago. But now this partial lifting is just like postponing the problem.”

Effects of the confusion

Despite the confusion and the fears generated by the fresh directive, local authorities say they will do whatever they can to curtail the spread of the disease. When contacted for comment about the situation on the ground, the district veterinary officer for Kaberamaido, Dr Francis Ocoma, said he would implement the fresh directive by banning the transportation of animals outside the two sub-counties of Kalaki and Bululu, where the cases of FMD were reported during the outbreak.

However, according to Dr Ocoma, the implementation of the directive is likely to run into some challenges due to the mixed signals from the ministry.

“We are actually in a difficult situation as Os because the press release [lifting the quarantine] is everywhere. People got to learn about it and they know the quarantine has been lifted by the director, Animal Resources it was unconditional lifting. So, ,people already have that information and it puts us in a difficult situation to say: ‘No, quarantine has not been lifted’,” he explained.

FMD, which first struck east and northern Uganda districts in June, affects cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. Although FMD does not usually kill mature animals, it greatly affects their productivity. The disease affects the mouth of the animal, thereby making feeding difficult, leading to retarded growth and low milk production.

Some veterinary experts say that before declaring an area completely free of FMD, it is mandatory for authorities to wait for at least six months from the time the last case was reported. This implies that many of the 28 affected districts, which reported their last cases in August-October, are still two to four months away from that safe period.

Yet, according to some authorities, the Office of the Prime Minister has already communicated that it intends to resume a re-stocking exercise in March next year, further raising the chances of a relapse of the problem if sufficient precautionary measures are not put in place.

Recurrent challenges

Shadow Agriculture minister Epetait, who is also a veterinary professional, said that the government can still redeem the situation if, during the partial quarantine, it makes serious preparations to contain the epidemic.

“We need mass vaccination,” Dr Epetait said. “If government is not ready to provide money, animals will continue dying anyway. Many farmers must have already lost a lot of animals. I am even worried how their children will go back to school because their main source of livelihood is cattle.”

However, Dr Ocoma believes that the government needs to put in place better systematic methods of preventing the outbreak of the disease.

“In Uganda, almost every year we are talking about foot-and-mouth disease and quarantine has become our dominant approach to controlling this disease. But during quarantine, you are paralysing the economy of the area, especially here where most of our income is from livestock. The other approach of routine vaccination could work better,” he explained, before asking “Why can’t government fund the ministry adequately to provide enough vaccines and staff to carry out the routine vaccination so that we don’t have the quarantines?”

In a recent interview with The Observer, the commissioner for Animal Health, Dr Chris Rutebarika, admitted that the government does not provide sufficient funding to the Agriculture ministry to enable it eliminate challenges such as the recurrence of FMD. The chronic underfunding also leads to human resource constraints that derail the fight against animal diseases.

The O of Nwoya, Dr James Okwir, said: “I don’t have any field staff. All the field staffs I had were under Naads and since their work was terminated, I am just struggling alone. In fact, all the vaccination I did, I used student interns and I had to supervise them in person.”

Dr Okwir revealed that he is currently battling a rabies outbreak in the district without any helping hand in form of support staff or even vaccines.”

In mid-October, members of the Uganda Veterinary Association petitioned Parliament demanding an autonomous ministry in charge of animal industry as a solution to the chronic underfunding and limited attention to their sub-sector. Before the early 1990s, the sector had its own ministry.

Source : The Observer

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