THE outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) among the cattle population in Johor and Pahang has necessitated restrictions on their movement — none may enter or leave these states.
Affected farms have been quarantined, and cattle within a 10km radius are being vaccinated. Mobilisation to contain the spread of the disease has been swift.
This is necessary because FMD is highly infectious. In some instances, it has resulted in culls of all susceptible animals (hoofed ones mainly) in the surrounding areas, as in Surrey, the United Kingdom, in 2007.
Deer parks were also closed for three months to protect the animals.
Hygiene standards on livestock farms must be improved and inspection conducted regularly
Vaccinations help to control the disease. Culling during an epidemic may seem cruel, because it is usually a non-fatal disease among adult cattle, but the animals’ growth and milk production are affected permanently.
Owing to the necessities of global trade, epidemics require firm handling. Trade bans are imposed on producing countries where epidemics occur.
They are lifted only when a country is declared free of the disease, hence the culling, quarantine and restriction on livestock movement.
In Southeast Asia, it is a recurring disease and countries in the region have worked together to stop it from spreading across national borders.
Some countries, which are protected by natural barriers, such as New Zealand, have never had outbreaks. But while the ocean can be an effective barrier, there must be vigilance to ensure that the disease is not imported.
The UK epidemic is proof that carelessness can be very costly. Australia, a major cattle country, also has strict controls. In Malaysia’s case, control over our land borders must take priority.
There needs to be strict surveillance to ensure that no infected meat or dairy products reach the market as this will prolong the epidemic, as has happened in North Korea.
Although vaccines do help to keep FMD at bay, they are not 100 per cent effective, and this carries with it trade implications. At the farm level, cleanliness is important.
For instance, farms that are affected must quickly cull infected animals and dispose of the carcasses properly. Then, the farm must be disinfected.
Unless these farms are declared free of FMD, the country as a whole will suffer. It goes without saying that hygiene on the country’s farms must be improved.
Regular inspections must be carried out by the Veterinary Services Department. Farmers must be alert and report suspected symptoms to the vet immediately.
While it is true that the livestock sector is not an export earner for the country, it can contribute a great deal to our food security.
Farming practices must be improved so that they are on a par with those of major livestock producing countries.
Livestock waste must be managed effectively
Leptospirosis is a disease that is associated with animals and it is emerging as a growing medical hazard to humans around the world, especially in tropical countries.
Livestock waste has the potential to contaminate a large area compared with rats.
A recent Health Ministry report disclosed that about 2,200 people were said to have been infected with leptospirosis, and 14 outbreaks were identified originating from activities associated with recreational grounds.
Last year alone, this zoonotic bug had killed 78 people.
There is a worrying concern among public health officials that the mortality statistics may spike further this year if the public does not take the necessary precautions during recreational outings.
In this context, I welcome the ministry’s effort and media in creating awareness among the public about leptospirosis infection and how to avoid getting infected.
In view of the long Hari Raya Aidilfitri holidays, it is important that the public is adequately cautioned of the need to take safety precautions.
It is heartening to note that our researchers and scientists are pooling their resources to undertake a multidisciplinary research to find new ways to curb the spread of leptospirosis.
A multidisciplinary research study of this nature will be helpful in understanding the missing links of this deadly bug. The research is conducted by the Malaysian Leptospirosis Research Network (MLRN).
I wish to draw the attention of MLRN and others concerned that we should not overlook the role of livestock and its associated husbandry practices that may be contributing to some extent the transmission of the leptospira bug in the environment.
It must be pointed out that livestock like cattle, pigs, goats and sheep harbour leptospira strains (serovars), many of which can easily infect humans and other animals under favourable conditions.
The serovar pomona and hardjo, which are common in cattle, have been known to cause serious illness in humans. According to scientific literature leptospira-infected livestock rarely shows clinical symptoms and it continues to shed the leptospira organism in the urine throughout.
A single infected adult cattle discharges several litres of urine a day. Imagine the leptospira load in the environment if several infected animals continue to discharge their waste in the environment.
If the animal waste or sludge is not properly disposed of or is allowed to seep into waterways (streams, rivers, etc) contaminating the environment, it invariably exposes the public and other animals to the deadly spirochete organisms.
Livestock farms situated in close proximity to recreational or public picnic spots pose a natural hazard to the public.
A recent statistical study by medical researcher Dr Sukhyuan Ryu of the Department of Public Health, Korea University, Seoul, clearly showed the striking association of unregulated livestock sludge/waste disposal to the number of leptospirosis infections in humans in South Korea.
Apparently when the South Korean authorities made it mandatory for livestock farms to manage their livestock waste in the proper way so that it does not contaminate the environment, there was a significant drop in the number of people infected with leptospirosis.
I have visited many livestock farms in the course of my work and I have seen many of these farms, including the commercial ones, with very poorly designed animal waste management infrastructure.
Much of the waste or sludge is discharged into a large pit or nearby rivers or streams. During heavy downpour, these sludge pits overflow into the environment and contaminate the ecology.
It’s time we seriously look into livestock waste/sludge management and introduce polices that mandates large- and medium-sized livestock farms close to recreational parks to instal proper waste management infrastructure.
Livestock farms that are located too close to recreational parks should be ideally relocated or the animals vaccinated against leptospirosis.
Livestock waste has the potential to contaminate a large area compared with rats. The government should allocate more funding to MLRN to investigate the role of livestock and its waste in the spread of leptospirosis.
The proper management of our livestock waste has the potential to tackle the spread of many other zoonotic diseases originating from food animals.