Tick fight targets Antigua
Eradication key to developing local meat industry
21 April 2004, St John's, Antigua - With 365 beaches, one for every day of the year, Antigua, touted as the "land of sea and sun", is a popular stop-off point for cruise ships and a leading vacation destination.
Long before the tourists discovered Antigua, however, the tropical bont tick (Amblyomma variegatum) arrived here, carrying a disease that can kill cattle, sheep and goats. To solve the problem, the Caribbean Amblyomma Programme (CAP), a Caribbean-wide approach to getting rid of the tick, has recently intensified its work on the island.
With funding from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), support from the local government and FAO as lead technical agency, the programme targets one parish at a time, moving across the island with its tick-fighting message. Extensive public awareness campaigns, dedicated staff and a committed government encourage farmers to treat their animals with the pesticide Bayticol every two weeks.
The programme has already proved successful on other islands in the region, and a large part of the Caribbean is now declared provisionally free of the tropical bont tick.
"We use the term provisional freedom. This indicates that an island is as close to tick-free as possible, but also indicates that surveillance is needed to eliminate new outbreaks," says CAP Programme Manager Rupert Pegram of FAO.
Carried by cattle egret
The tick is carried from island to island by the cattle egret, a bird that can fly as far as the North and South American mainlands, thereby threatening further spread of the tick and the animal diseases it causes -- the skin infection dermatophilosis and the fatal disease heartwater.
"We are especially concerned about the risk of heartwater spreading to livestock and wildlife in the United States," says Richard E. Pacer, USDA Veterinary Attaché to the Caribbean Area, explaining the agency's main reason for funding the project. "In a broader sense we also want to help our neighbouring countries enhance their agricultural health infrastructures and enable them to participate more fully in international trade."
The eradication of the tick and its related diseases could be a first step towards development of a meat industry on Antigua, home to half the total cattle population in the Caribbean.
"Once the tick is eradicated, the farmers will have the opportunity to get involved in new animal management and development efforts, focused on making the island more self-sufficient in meat and dairy products and, in some cases, even export those products," says Pegram.
"Antigua does not have a shortage of food per se; they have just enough resources to import the food they need. But it's a question of food security -- it could be more cost efficient to produce food domestically," he says.
Potential for local meat industry
With 70 000 permanent residents, 250 000 stay-over tourists every year and 600 000 cruise-ship visitors expected in 2004, Antigua's food needs are great. Almost all food products are imported: fruits and vegetables from neighbouring countries and meat mainly from the United States and New Zealand.
Hotels and restaurants with tourist clientele serve imported meat because, as one restaurant manager puts it: "We must be able to guarantee our customers high-quality meat -- today we cannot rely on the local market due to uncertainty of the quality and uncertainty of the volume on a regular basis."
In the small restaurant Bush Tee, however, Maureen Lake, the owner and cook, says she uses only local meat and that that's the best meat.
"My customers prefer local meat because they know what they eat. They know the animals have fed on grass and no additives," she says.
Helena Jeffery is the national coordinator for the CAP in Antigua and a well-known face on the island. She explains how she and her colleagues systematically work their way through the island, spreading their tick-fighting message.
"When we target a new area of the island we start by inviting all farmers to an information meeting," she says.
This week, about 15 farmers have come to the local school to learn more about the programme and how they will be helped to rid their livestock of the tick. Like most farmers in Antigua, they are part-time farmers and have other jobs during the day. Still they are committed and want to know when they can start the treatment.
"Only if we work together we will be successful in eradicating the tick from Antigua," Jeffery tells her audience. "Our neighbour countries have succeeded, so we can also do it," she says.
Most of the farmers knew about the treatment campaign before this meeting. They have seen the signs on the roads promoting the use of Bayticol, heard the interviews with Helena Jeffery and Rupert Pegram on the radio and TV or read about the campaign in the newspapers.
Easy to treat
Traditionally, Antiguan farmers let their animals roam rather than fencing them in. The first step in the tick treatment is to determine the owner of every animal, brand the animals with the owner's initials and tag them with a coloured ear tag indicating their home parish.
Albert Lewis, a 70-year-old father of six with 14 grandchildren, has been a farmer since he was a boy. He has ten cows and four bulls and lives in St Paul's parish, which is now being targeted by the programme. Today he has met up with the CAP team to have his cattle tagged and branded. He is also given Bayticol and is shown how to use the pesticide.
"We have always had problems with the tick. Before we used to take the animals to the beach to wash the tick away, but new ticks would always appear. Now I will start using Bayticol every two weeks to keep the tick away. The treatment will also keep flies away, which is very good," he says.
Farmer by farmer, the CAP team is spreading its message across the island.
"The method is simple but demands persistence," says Pegram. "Committed farmers are the key to success, because only if the farmers treat their animals every two weeks for two years, followed by surveillance for another couple of years, will we get rid of the tick."
FAO Information Officer
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