14 July 2003, Rome – FAO’s efforts to eradicate the tropical bont tick (Amblyomma variegatum), which killed nine out of ten head of cattle on the island of Nevis alone in the 1980s, have been successful in a large part of the Caribbean. Now the Organization’s tick-fighting campaign -- the Caribbean Amblyomma Programme (CAP) -- is targeting Antigua, Nevis and St. Maarten where more than half of the Caribbean cattle population is found and the tick is still widespread.

The tropical bont tick spread rapidly in the Caribbean in the late 20th century, attacking cattle and other livestock and causing a decline in meat and milk production. The tick causes acute dermatophilosis, a skin infection, and the fatal disease heartwater.

Threat to mainland of Americas

The tick’s rapid expansion coincided with that of the cattle egret population in the region. The bird, which carries the larvae and nymphs of the tick, can fly as far as the Florida coast of the United States as well as to the coast of the South American mainland -- a threat that makes the need for eradication of the tick from the Caribbean all the more acute.

Since 1995, a project carried out by FAO and national governments and funded by the United States, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the European Union has radically reduced the number of affected animals.

“We measure our success by the number of islands that are provisionally free of the tropical bont tick,” says Carlos Eddi, an FAO expert on parasitic diseases. “Today we have accomplished this in practically all the southern part of the region, but we still have a large challenge in fighting the tick in Antigua, Nevis and St. Maarten in the north.”

Significant efforts to control the plague are also being made in the French West Indies. Heartwater is endemic in Guadeloupe and Marie Galante. CAP and the Tropical Bont Tick Eradication Programme in French West Indies are cooperating with regard to implementation of the control phase, surveillance and data collection.

Countries are said to be provisionally free of the pest because until the tick is eliminated from the entire region no country can be declared totally tick-free. Six of the nine countries involved in the CAP had been declared provisionally free, but Dominica, Saint Lucia and Saint Kitts were reinfested. CAP’s Regional Coordination Unit is currently in the process of preparing recommendations and contingency plans for emergency responses to new and persistent or recurrent hot spots.

Cattle industry has potential

By tradition, most Caribbean cattle owners are small-scale farmers who keep a limited number of cattle for their own needs. In Antigua, however, where half the total population of cattle in the Caribbean is found, the farms tend to be larger, giving this island the potential to build up an industry and underlining the value of tick-eradication efforts.

The tourist industry is of vital economic importance to the Caribbean islands. However, partly due to uncertainty about the quality as well as the supply of locally produced products, practically all meat and dairy products served by hotels are imported.

“Eradication of the tropical bont tick from Antigua is an essential prerequisite for livestock production and food security, not only in Antigua, but for the entire Caribbean region,” says Rupert Pegram, CAP Director. “The success in Antigua is especially important due to the large number of cattle there and the possibilities to develop an industry that this implies.”

Local commitment key to success

The headquarters of the programme will be moved from Barbados in the southern Caribbean, where it has been widely successful, to Antigua in the north. This will allow the project team to focus not only on Antigua but on the neighbouring islands of Nevis and St. Maarten as well.

The secret to the programme's success so far has been its participatory approach. Local livestock producers, with the guidance of government staff, take responsibility for applying the necessary treatments of acaricide, a tick-killing chemical, to their animals. Massive public information campaigns are carried out by the project team to encourage community participation in wiping out the tick. A calypso song was even recorded to spread the message.

The animal owners’ pivotal role in the eradication effort has contributed both to keeping costs down and to increasing the technical and operational capacities of each country. But additional funding is still needed to complete eradication and to prevent the tick once again causing destruction in the region and spreading to mainland countries.

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