Farmers warned over deadly virus

Serious outbreak of Rift Valley Fever predicted for summer months

A leading South African animal health company has warned of a potential Rift Valley Fever “bloodbath” in December and has urged farmers to begin vaccinating their livestock immediately. 
This follows an outbreak of the deadly virus – which has previously killed people, including an Eastern Cape vet – in the Free State last month, when 250 sheep died.
The last major outbreak in South Africa took place in 2010, during which 78 cases of human infection were recorded, along with extensive livestock deaths.
And like the recent bird flu epidemic which shattered the country’s poultry industry, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of chickens, Rift Valley Fever has the potential to devastate the country’s sheep and goat populations, in particular.
This would cripple the Eastern Cape’s red meat sector as well as its vital wool and mohair industries.
Veterinarian and Afrivet chief executive Dr Peter Oberem, who sounded the alarm over the virus, underlined the urgency of the matter.
He revealed that Rift Valley Fever vaccinations were only manufactured at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Academic Hospital.
This could mean critical shortages of the vaccine, particularly as stocks may be minimal as a result of the time that has lapsed since the last major outbreak of the virus.
East London-born Oberem, who revealed that Kenyan authorities had also now released a warning about the virus, outlined the events and conditions which have led to the latest warnings.
“Two hundred and fifty sheep died in May of Rift Valley Fever on a farm in Jacobsdal in the Free State.
Reported cases so late in the season – it is already winter in the southern hemisphere – is worrying.
“It ’s not because we can expect a full-blown epidemic right away, but cases now point to a very good chance of a serious outbreak in summer.
“This is because the fever is caused by a virus that is transmitted by mosquitos.
“They [mosquitos] might be inactive in cold weather, but the fact is that the mosquitos have already feasted on the blood of infected animals.
“This means that come summer, swarms will emerge as active carriers. If farmers do not take decisive preventative action now in winter, December could be a Rift Valley Fever bloodbath,” Oberem warned.He said the virus was devastating in small livestock, especially sheep, and that up to 90% of lambs die within days of being infected, while between 40% and 100% of pregnant ewes that are infected will abort.
“While it also occurs in cattle, buffalo and antelope, the disease is neither as virulent nor as fatal in those species as in sheep and goats.
“Rift Valley Fever is furthermore a zoonotic disease, meaning it can spread from animals to people,” he said.
An Eastern Cape state veterinarian, who asked not to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media, said yesterday that it was vital for farmers to vaccinate their livestock.
“It is certainly a case of prevention being better than cure. Once your flock or herd has been infected, there is nothing you can do about it and the losses will be great,” the veterinarian said.
“So the costs and efforts of vaccination far outweigh the risks that come with not vaccinating livestock.”
Saying he would not like to comment on the availability of the vaccine, he said farmers should contact their local agricultural co-ops to find out about availability.
The veterinarian said, however, that he believed the cold winter conditions would kill the virus-carrying mosquitos and therefore reduce the risks of a major outbreak.

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