15 April 2003, Rome -- Outbreaks of animal diseases threaten food security and risk crippling the recovery of Afghanistan's fragile rural sector, FAO warned as it appealed for funds for essential veterinary services.

FAO is appealing for a total of $6.89 million over a period of five years to fund projects to help the Afghan government monitor and prevent outbreaks of diseases in cattle, sheep, goats and poultry and to support veterinary field clinics providing vaccinations and treatments.

"In Afghanistan, after the war and the drought, the rains have finally arrived and people are just beginning to rebuild their livelihoods and their herds," said David Ward, a Veterinary expert from the Organization's Animal Health Service. "But funds for vital veterinary services have dried up at a time when both farmers and the government need support," he added.

Private veterinarians need business loans to buy medicines and vaccines to sell to farmers and the government needs training in order to deliver public services such as disease control and prevention, FAO said.

"The government simply has no resources to dedicate to animal health, quality control and safety," Ward explained. "It was a role that, up until now, had been played by FAO but we would like to help the Afghan government to provide these much-needed public services and strengthen its abilities to prevent and deal with potentially devastating disease outbreaks."

"Cattle plague" risk

A global programme to eradicate rinderpest - also known as "cattle plague" - has been successful in Asia and there is now growing confidence that the virus has been defeated there.

But livestock move freely across borders and carry with them the risk of outbreaks. Therefore, vigilance against a resurgence of rinderpest must be maintained until its absence is proven unequivocally. Such a resurgence would put the whole of Central Asia at risk.

Afghanistan is part of the way through a five-year disease eradication process. A lack of funds will prevent the country completing this process and declaring itself disease-free.

FAO said some $2 million of the total appeal is needed for an immediate project to bolster government monitoring of transboundary animal diseases at livestock markets and along borders and to respond to possible outbreaks.

Risk of foot-and-mouth disease

On a national scale, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) would debilitate cattle which plough wheat fields in the "breadbaskets" of Western and Northern Afghanistan and till soil in irrigated valleys, seriously threatening food security.

"FMD spreads through contact between animals - for example at markets. The sick animals have sores on their feet and in their mouth so they can't drag a plough. Having a sick animal can cause a food crisis in the family," Ward explained.

Most Afghani farming households depend on cattle - usually a single ox - to plough their wheat fields at planting time. A handful of sheep or goats, perhaps six or seven, represent a household's savings and the offspring and animals' products are sold to raise cash in an emergency. Northern sheep raisers and nomadic tribes have herds of up to 300 sheep which they depend upon for skins, wool and milk.

Outbreaks of FMD, which affects cattle, and peste des petits ruminants (PPR), which affects goats and sheep, would therefore hit both the households' immediate source of food and its medium-term source of emergency funds.

FAO plans to offer capacity-building support to over 200 local private veterinary field clinics, based throughout the country, which have been delivering veterinary treatments, de-worming against parasites and vaccinations on a fee-based basis for the past 10 years.

The field clinics cover 70 percent of the country and reach some 90 percent of livestock. FAO estimates that one third of all livestock have been vaccinated, at the owner's expense, against common diseases each year.

FAO's funds would also be spent on training local and national authorities so they can deliver public services such as disease control and prevention. It would include refresher education, computer and language training and telephone and internet connections.

Erwin Northoff
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 570 53105