By Kennedy Nyavaya
Agroup of poultry vendors jostle to market their products to customers, in complete defiance of government’s recommendation to maintain social distancing and curb the spread of Covid-19.
Located on the roadside, a livestock market that sits opposite the entrance to giant poultry company — Irvines — is one of many dotted across Hopley Farm, on the outskirts of Harare.
The selling of live chicken, mainly sourced from Irvines, is brisk business as other protein alternatives like pork and beef have become too expensive for most families.
However, these efforts come with a risk of exposure to zoonotic diseases in the largely unregulated poultry supply chains.
Sitting at one of the makeshift stalls, backyard poultry breeder Ben Chauke is ecstatic that his stock is almost sold out by midday.
“This is my only source of livelihood and on days when I get profits like this, it is enough for me and my family,” he told The Standard.
His excitement goes beyond the fact that stock has sold well, but that it happened without him having had to fork out a fortune on costs for vaccination and other medication.
“A poultry business is good except when chickens get sick with various types of diseases that can claim up to 40 from a group of 100 chickens unless we invest well into medication,” said Chauke.
“It also usually depends on how well one cleans the hen house and whether they are getting enough heat or not because they need care and protection similar to that of humans.”
Small-scale farmers like Chauke are gamblers when it comes to animal health yet the little space they have for breeding compromises on hygiene, leading to a very high risk of disease spread.
Bangladeshi virologist Rokshana Parvin, who has been conducting research on avian influenza in her country for over a decade, says the mishandling of livestock in informal markets is a serious threat to food supply in developing countries.
“Infectious diseases, especially, viral diseases among livestock are a major threat to global animal health and welfare so their effective control is crucial for agronomic health, safeguarding and securing national and international food supplies as well as alleviating poverty,” says Parvin.
According to her, avian influenza viruses are now endemic in many parts of the world and “threats from old and new pathogens continue to emerge” with changes to global climate, agricultural practices and demography presenting conditions favourable for the spread.
This is enough reason to always keep update on circulating viruses in any country to avoid the spike of disease to pandemic levels she says:
“That [constant research] would further help the society or community to get alert from the emergence of new pre-pandemic strain of the virus.”
According to the International Livestock Research Institute, zoonotic diseases transmissible either directly or indirectly between animals and humans are responsible for more than 2,4 billion cases of human illness and 2,2 million deaths per year.
The effects are grimmer in poor communities like most of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe where people have little nutritional options and depend on unsafe sources like backyard-bred poultry for protein.
“People have to be educated on how to take good care of their animals and buying from reputable sources because zoonotic diseases are under-reported locally,” a local veterinarian who preferred anonymity said.
Without full knowledge on animal health, the country’s disaster preparedness is compromised and the consequences could be far-reaching.
“If we are not taking enough care of our animals, it means if there is any problem within the animal health system it will also affect humans as they consume these products,” said the expert.
“Also, being an importer of livestock if we do not do research to check for zoonotic diseases in what is coming in, it becomes a big public health crisis.”
In 2017, the country battled with the highly contagious H5N8 bird flu which triggered import bans from other countries in Southern Africa, weighing heavily on local producers. But, unfettered sale of chickens continued within Zimbabwe’s borders although subsistence producers continue to report that their chickens being wiped out by unidentified bugs.
“A person can never get flu from a chicken, but the opposite could be true” says Chauke sarcastically.
Backyard breeders like him sometimes slaughter sick chickens and sell the pieces to avert losses, a phenomenon he partially confirmed.
“There are some customers who can approach me saying they want the dying chickens, at a lower price of course, and there is no way I would refuse that and make a loss,” he revealed.
Ironically, the fear of zoonotic disease spread is more real now more than ever as a result of reports claiming that Covid-19 emerged from bat consumption in China.
Investigations show that avian influenza H5N1 strain (bird flu) is already endemic in many countries in the world, causing human infections and death.
“It is very much concern among the scientific community, that further mutation and re-assortment events within the circulating H5N1 virus may lead to emergence of a new pandemic strain that could kill more human lives,” said Parvin.
For a country like Zimbabwe conducting little to no research owing to resource constraints, these dangers are more pronounced and compounded by hunger, as half the population was earlier this year projected to starve this year alone according to the World Food Programme.
However, there is still urgent need for research and relatable ways of communicating how healthy rearing ways of the poultry could minimise or limit disease outbreak says Parvin.
“We never should approach the community saying ‘do not eat chicken or duck, they transmit disease’,” she suggests.
“It will give a negative impression to the underprivileged societies or less educated community, rather we should motivate them to use basic hygienic and sanitisation methods in the community.”
Whether small-scale poultry farmers like Chauke or their customers choose to view the scientific revelations with the importance they solicit remains a mystery, but turning a blind eye could be tragic in the future.