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Animal diseases in Africa and their linkages with climate change

11 May 2011 - Throughout the African continent, diseases that are transmitted through livestock or wildlife can cause death and illnesses in susceptible human populations. Some examples include Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever (CCHF), a transmissible tick-borne viral infection; Rift Valley Fever (RVF), a mosquito-borne viral disease mainly affecting ruminants; Lassa Fever (LF), an acute viral illness that is transmitted by Mastomys rodents; and Trypanosomiasis, a tsetse-fly transmitted infectious disease unique to the tropics. Outbreaks of these diseases brings further impoverishment to Africans who are already poor, food insecure, and suffering from other health problems such as malnutrition, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and diarrheal diseases.

Now, as in the past, Africa is experiencing a number of phenomena that may influence the emergence of diseases in animals and humans. These include war-provoked refugee camps, mass migrations, livestock production systems’ intensification, increased global and regional trade in animal products, population growth, urbanization, global warming, natural resource depletions, regional poverty and pockets of hunger, income inequality, natural disasters, and an array of other climatic changes, along with resulting droughts. It is therefore fair to say that diseases emerge from changing landscape-livelihood interactions. These are closely related to drug resistance, rapid genetic changes in pathogens, new farming practices, increased mobility and increasingly intensive food, water, and social systems that allow novel evolutionary niches to arise.

Because animal diseases not only depend on their hosts but also on their ecological surroundings for survival, it is important to examine the evolving interactions with ongoing changes in climatic conditions. In short, global temperatures are expected to increase by 1.8 to 5.8 degrees Celsius. The hydrologic cycle will be altered, since warmer air can retain more moisture than cooler air. This means that some geographic areas will have more rainfall, while others more drought and the incidence of severe weather events is predicted to increase. If this holds true in the future, rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will have a substantial effect on the burden of infectious diseases that are transmitted by insect vectors and through contaminated waters, such as cholera.  

Aside from animal diseases, droughts are particularly disruptive. Droughts are a fairly common occurrence in many African states surrounding the Sahara desert. At present, a drought in the Horn of Africa is plunging millions of pastoralists closer to food insecurity. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) estimates roughly nine million people are in need of food aid in the region. Animals are particularly affected: buffaloes, camels, cows, goats, and sheep—and people whose livelihoods depend on animals are affected too. For instance, reduction in livestock holdings due to more frequent droughts, coupled with a population that is growing at 2.5 percent per year over the past 40 years, has decreased the amount of protein and milk available to the average family. In Ethiopia, the situation is particularly acute considering that livestock is the dominant subsector within agriculture and contributed 48 billion birr (about US$2.9 billion) to the national economy between 2008 and 2009, according to a recent analysis by the IGAD Livestock Policy Initiative.

To this end, the Animal Production and Health Division of FAO is identifying intervention points and policy approaches which can lessen the negative impacts of the dynamics of animal diseases and the environment, and help build the resilience and adaptive capacity of people living in rural African settings. The optimism for Africa is girded by its significant comparative advantage in a range of important commodities with global and regional demand. The growth of such agro-industries and trade of animal products can in turn generate economic growth and employment, and this can help reduce poverty. These interventions and policies need to be tested, promoted, and communicated.

FAO of the UN is an institutional partner of the World Veterinary Year 2011.


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