Combating tick borne diseases in Zimbabwe: Back to the future?

Taruvinga Magwiroto

Tick borne diseases (TBDs) are decimating cattle in Zimbabwe. While the statistics are understandably hard to capture, everyday we hear enough stories of woe on social media and farming-oriented WhatsApp groups to realise that this is a big problem, and is probably here to stay. It has become a silent epidemic ripping through the rural heartland of Zimbabwe. And the crucial question that I want to raise on this article is: are the authorities doing enough?

What we know.

What is known at this moment is that cattle deaths from TBDs are reckoned in hundreds of thousands in the last 5 years. For example in 2017-2018 alone, upwards of 50 000 herd of cattle were lost to January Disease, one of the deadliest TBDs found in Zimbabwe. In particular, January Disease is wrecking havoc because of its spread to areas where it was hitherto not endemic. As such large numbers of animals with no premunity to January Disease are being exposed to it for the first time, resulting in high fatalities.

The context

The resurgence of TBDs as important causes of cattle loss comes in a specific context in the development of Zimbabwe, the articulation of which is critical to understanding this problem. I will list the important factors, and briefly analyse each one separately in a later section.

  1. Collapse of governement-funded communal dipping scheme.
  2. Indiscriminate movement of stock
  3. Policy deficiencies
  4. Climate change?

Historical background

People need to realise that the state of Zimbabwe’s agriculture has been very well-developed because of the cumulative knowledge from the intensive research that occured in our colonial past. The Veterinary Department was born out of the need to combat tropical livestock diseases that decimated the fledgling herds of White Settlers as long back as the 1890s. Rinderpest decimated whole herds of cattle in the 1890s; East Coast Fever (a TBD) decimated settlers’ cattle and was only eradicated in 1954; TBDs erupted in the 1970s due to the disruption of dipping due to war of independence.

Zimbabwe is a tropical country, and is home to many pests and parasites of animals as well as humans. At some point in our history, the tsetse fly and mosquitoes made human and domestic animal existence impossible in low-lying parts of the country.

Taming the wild

Investment in research and development allowed the White Settlers to claim portions of the country for human and domestic animal habitation that would otherwise have been naturally inhabitable. At veterinary college, I remember we were shown a video of a Liverpool-trained veterinarian who dedicated his entire life to working on tsetse and trypanosomiasis control in the Zambezi Valley. Such dedication and investment paid off in the end, and allowed humans to tame and claim a portion of the wilderness for human habitation, with the help of chemicals of course.

The cost of human conflict

As is common cause, Zimbabwe’s history has been punctuated with violent conflict. And it is worth noting that besides the other costs of conflict, the disruption in research and development that occurs has negative consequences to human and animal welfare. In particular, the disruption of vector control results in the build up of such vectors in the environment, disrupting the (artificial) balance that allowed humans and their domestic animals to thrive in such environments. If you add to the picture a large number of animals with no immunity to those vector-borne diseases, the result is an epidemic.

Returning to equilibrium: rural development policy options

If we agree that livestock production in the tropics is based on the tight equillibrium between animal immunity and vector control, then its only right to advocate for the re-establishment of that equilibrium. This requires intentionality, dedication and focus on the part of government. Resources are required. Livestock research has to be resuscitated. Capacity of professionals and para-professionals to deal with the situation has to be enhanced.

Last word

While advocating for a return to policies that worked, we also have to be alive to changes that are happening due to climate change. There are many questions that need to be answered through research. For example: what is the actual nature of the January Disease protozoa? Is it changing (mutating)? Why has the brown ear tick been able to thrive in micro-climates that historically they could not thrive in? Is climate change causing subtle changes in microclimates that is allowing pests and parasites to expand their territories? Are the dip chemicals working? If not, why not? Are ticks getting resistant to chemicals?

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