Eradicating the Foot and Mouth Disease from Pakistan

Published: May 12, 2013

Pakistan is the world’s fourth-largest producer of milk, which may be an important source of food not only for Pakistanis but for the rest of the world. The presence of FMD in Pakistan currently prohibits the export of this dairy product. PHOTO: FILE

KARACHI: Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) is endemic (present) and widespread throughout Pakistan, Dr David Ashford, an Animal Health Attaché at the US Embassy in Islamabad, tells The Express Tribune. Ashford has worked in the field of veterinary medicine and infectious disease control since 1986, and holds a doctoral degree in veterinary medicine from Cornell University and a doctoral degree in infectious diseases from Harvard University.

“Studies suggest that 35-50% of all animals are exposed to the virus by the time they reach one year of age,” he says. This number is high, which is why the US is working to control this and other important diseases of livestock in Pakistan. “But this must be a programme with complete and sustained support from Pakistan itself.” These US efforts are part of broader US-Pakistan cooperation to improve agricultural production and the overall welfare of Pakistani farmers.

FMD virus was once endemic throughout the world. Through concerted and broadly supported national control efforts, combined with regional alliances to insure border crossing of animals and coordinated vaccination programmes, the virus has been eliminated from most of the Americas, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and recently from Malaysia and the Philippines.

However, without widespread annual vaccinations, inspection and control of the movement of live animals and animal products, animal health certification, and a strong and well-supported public veterinary service within Pakistan, FMD remains and will remain endemic, Ashford says.

The US eliminated the disease through a national programme designed and implemented in the early part of the 20th century.  Thanks to the development of effective vaccines and the formation of country and regional cooperative strategies, the rest of the Americas have nearly completed eradication of this disease. “It can be done: just look at the success of countries such as Brazil, which is now the number one exporter of meat in the world,” Ashford points out.

Pakistan is the world’s fourth-largest producer of milk, which may be an important source of food not only for Pakistanis but for the rest of the world. The presence of FMD in Pakistan currently prohibits the exportation of this food. “Better control of FMD in Pakistan can help Pakistani farmers not only improve their own production, but potentially export and help feed a hungry world.”

It is difficult to estimate the national cost of the disease in terms of GDP, because a great part of the loss is contained within loss of the ability to export animal products. “However, we do know from previous studies that the presence of the virus causes losses to the domestic market of about Rs7 billion per year. From the perspective of small farmers, which make up 60% of agricultural production in Pakistan, our recent studies have shown that having a single buffalo affected by FMD will cost that farmer about Rs18,500 for six months of milk production,” Ashford says.

While it is true that the disease is widely endemic in Pakistan and most farmers recognise the disease, what is not widely known is how devastating the decision to live with FMD can be on the overall Pakistani economy and what might be done to control the disease and why.  There is often a resignation among those that have lived with a particular disease or loss for decades or centuries to continue to see that disease or loss as part of the status quo – and therefore, they see no need for action. What world efforts have shown, and what the work of the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Government of Pakistan in these pilot projects have shown, is that there is great value in taking action and getting rid of this very costly disease.

Pakistan has shown past success in similar animal disease control programmes when it joined the world in successfully eradicating another disease called Rhinderpest. “In the case of FMD, there may be a need to expand vaccination and inspection teams – not just of doctors and experts, but of para-vets and technical staff to vaccinate and inspect animals as they move around Pakistan,” Ashford says.

Export of animals from any country in which the virus exists can potentially lead to outbreaks in other countries. That is why regional strategies for control and international cooperation are an essential component to success.

“The United States remains dedicated to this effort to control FMD and other important diseases, and we need your help in spreading awareness of the value of vaccination and disease control to improve the lives of Pakistanis,” Ashford concluded.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 13th, 2013.

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