Tick-borne diseases: symptoms of deeper issues.

Taruvinga Magwiroto

Recent reports of the on-going outbreak of the tick borne disease Theileriosis (also known as January Disease) in Zimbabwe has laid bare some of the problems and issues facing post land reform Zimbabwe. Theileriosis is more than a problem for livestock farmers. It is symptomatic of failures of social safety nets, institutional failures and the spectre of climate change.

Because Zimbabwe is located in a (sub) tropical region, the country is prime location for various tropical pests and diseases. For cattle particularly, ticks and tsetse flies have been known to be a big problem in Zimbabwe. That is why tick control was legislated (there is a Cattle Cleansing Regulations in Zimbabwe, under the Animal Health Act). But more importantly, tick control was under the auspices of a government department (Department of Veterinary Services). The department was responsible for procuring dip chemicals and employing field level extension workers to manage the system (among other things).

Based on my own first-hand experience, the system worked. In the mid-2000s when I worked as a field level veterinary extension assistant, I was in charge of up to 8 dip tanks deputised by a dipping assistant. Each dip tank had a dipping committee made up of members from the local community. I can testify that the system worked perfectly. The dip committee was responsible for mobilising the community to periodically empty and fill up the dip tank with water; to follow up on recalcitrant community members who skipped dipping sessions; was otherwise a conduit between the veterinary department and the community.

Things obviously started going wrong around 2000. For a start, due to the political nature of the land reform, animal movement regulations seemed superfluous. If the shef wanted to move his/her cattle from A to B, what lowly government officer was to stop them because of animal movement regulations? Thus begun the unrestricted movement of cattle. This unrestricted animal movement can’t be solely imputed: it is one of many factors that led to ticks’ translocation from one region to the other, thereby establishing new colonies.

If ticks established new colonies and thrived, it means something else happened. This time this had nothing to do with wayward shefs. This has to do with the physical environment. The argument is that climate change is causing changes to the micro-environment of places, to the end that pests can now colonise regions which hitherto they were not able to do so. Theileriosis is transmitted by the brown ear tick (Rhipicephalus appendiculatus). It is a tick known to thrive in the cool wet high veld of Zimbabwe. However, the disease has now been reported all over the country, with particular surprise in dry hot Buhera and dry Chikomba District.

And of course, the severity of the mortalities point out to other issues at play. The immunity to tick borne diseases depends on enzootic stability. That is, animals which are exposed to a tick borne disease from an early age develop active immunity to the disease. For this active immunity to be maintained, the animal has to be constantly challenged by the tick borne disease. In other words, an animal maintains its immune status if it is infested by a small number of ticks. That’s the concept of enzootic stability: low-level tick infestation maintains an animal’s active immunity against the disease. Conversely, if an animal encounters a tick borne disease for which it has no previous exposure, a severe illness ensues, with death as a possibility. Now, Theileriosis caused most deaths in areas where it was occurring for the first time. Makes sense?

Of course another possible explanation is that maybe this is another form of the disease, a more virulent variant? East Coast Fever was eradicated from Southern Rhodesia in the 1950s, but with the current breakdown in discipline of animal movement, who knows. It is a long shot, but not impossible that we could be dealing with a new disease altogether.

One of the areas that has not been getting due attention is the loss of human resource capacity in the agriculture support system in Zimbabwe. This is not to say there is quantitative shortage of field staff, no. I happen to know that agricultural education has also borne the brunt of the current institutional decay occurring in Zimbabwe. The initial preparation of extension staff is not ideal to say the least. The agricultural colleges are ill-funded, the infrastructure is crumbling, a lot of them are being mismanaged. The end result is that the graduates who are coming from these colleges are sub-par, and once in the system, there is no on-job training to augment the poor initial training.

To illustrate, for my undergraduate research project in 2017, I carried a training needs analysis of veterinary extension field staff on the diagnosis and management of tick borne diseases. Suffice it to say that the training gaps were alarming. Not surprisingly, almost all the respondents (40) could not recognise a clinical presentation of a typical case description of Theileriosis. If you can’t diagnose or recognise it, can you treat it? It also begs the question: how accurate are the figures being quoted in the media? Who provides the data, and how accurate is it? The problem could be way worse than being reported.

 So what do we do about it?

In answering this question, we have to ask ourselves, what worked before? It is known that there was an effective dipping regime in Zimbabwe that worked well. No need to re-invent the wheel. The system has to be resuscitated.

The relevant ministry and department has to stand up and be counted. The rural population is an important political constituency. Why are their needs neglected? Why are dip tanks being allowed to crumble and die? Why are political parties not prioritising development of rural infrastructure yet we want to increase our food production capability? Why?

If Command Agriculture is testament to the fact that government wants to subsidise agriculture, then why ignore rehabilitation of dip tanks? Why is part of the money not set aside for buying acaricide and resuscitating the dipping regime?

I know as part of the economic stabilisation plan, there is talk of financing “lead farmers” (or whatever name was used) to serve as mentors for upcoming farmers. I say, that is not the smartest thing to do. It does not work, unless the leaders are looking for excuses to expropriate public money. Fund the relevant ministry, and ensure that they work. Capacitate them. Respect the Animal Health Act. Fund communities, and ensure that they work. Monitor and evaluate progress. What are MPs using the Constituency Development Funds for?

As long as we do not put our money where our mouths are, we will continue to be people who beg others for food.

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