Progress made to combat and mitigate Rift Valley Fever (RVF): joint briefing by Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and Department of Health

Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development

18 May 2010
Chairperson: Mr M Johnson (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee was briefed on the nature of Rift Valley Fever (RVF), its effect on animal and human life, its impact on the economy, what preventive measures were necessary, and the role which the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Department of Health were playing in tackling the disease. RVF is a mosquito-borne viral disease which emerges after periods of abnormally high rainfall, such as experienced recently in the central regions of South Africa.   So far, it had affected some 100 000 animals and claimed 19 human lives.

As RVF was not a controlled disease, the onus was on farmers to ensure their livestock was vaccinated.  However, there had been an initial shortage of vaccines, combined with the problem that vaccinating pregnant animals caused abortions or abnormalities. Since the start of the current outbreak in February, the incidence of the disease had slowed with the advent of colder weather.  However, the Departments were preparing major campaigns ahead of the advent of summer, when resurgence in RVF was expected. Disappointment was expressed that minor outbreaks of RVF last year had not served as a warning to take preventive action ahead of this year’s outbreak.

Members’ questions ranged from why there had been a shortage of vaccine, to the spraying of mosquito breeding areas; collaboration with other departments; control of livestock movements; food security and any possible threats to World Cup visitors; how to understand and deal with climate change; and the need for more veterinarians in the public sector to help cope with future outbreaks.

Meeting report

The Chairperson said the briefing on the influence of RFV on animals in South Africa was particularly relevant because of the arrival of World Cup visitors from overseas.  The Committee would be failing in its duty if it did not ensure the safety and security of its food supply, and both the Parliamentary committee dealing with Sport, and the Fifa Local Organising Committee, had been advised that this matter was being attended to.

Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF)
Mr Bigman Maloa, Deputy Director General: Food safety and bio security of DAFF, described RVF as a mosquito-borne viral disease which affects farm animals, some game and humans.  It became a problem only when there had been consistent heavy rain and warmth.  Humans were rarely directly affected, although farmers and abattoir workers were most at risk because they came into direct contact with infected animals.

The first major outbreak in South Africa occurred in 1951, when 100 000 sheep and a smaller number of cattle had died.  There had also been a severe outbreak in 1974/75, which had now been followed by an outbreak in 2010.  This was the result of excessive rainfall in the country’s central regions, particularly the north-west Cape, where the amount of rain recorded had been up to 10 times above normal.

The first RVF case had been reported in Bultfontein, in the Free State, and up to May 6, 2010, 329 outbreaks had been recorded, affecting 10 000 animals and resulting in 6 300 deaths.  The Free State had been the worst affected, followed by the Northern Cape and then the Eastern Cape.   The incidence of RVF had peaked after 13 weeks, but had since declined because of the onset of colder weather.
As RVF was not a “controlled disease”, it was not mandatory for farmers to report an outbreak to the authorities.   However, farmers and veterinarians do report RVF cases to state veterinarians so that they can assist the Department to manage the problem. The responsibility for managing the disease rested with the farmers. 

The Department, in terms of the Animal Act, simply advised farmers on the need to vaccinate their animals when there was abnormal rain and warmth.  A problem arose when farmers, faced with a cost of 41c a dose, chose to vaccinate only a portion of their herd.  Vaccine was produced by Onderstepoort Biological Products, and the State Veterinary Services provided the vaccine to emerging farmers.  Information about RVF was disseminated, in liaison with the Department of Health, via the media, at community and farmers’ days, and at meetings with health professionals.

The economic consequences of an RVF outbreak included other countries banning the imports of live ruminants and meat, or even hides, skins and wool.  Beef exports were also restricted.
Success in combating RVF depended on the vaccination of all weaned ruminants before an outbreak, and this was a farm management issue.

Dr Peter Thabete, Director General of DAFF, said the high rainfall had resulted in a large quantity of mosquito eggs waiting to hatch.  This meant DAFF had to introduce a very comprehensive programme if RVF were to be contained.   Two types of vaccine were available – one live, and the other inactivated.  The live vaccine was more effective, but could only be used after the animals’ breeding season because if the animals were pregnant, they tended to abort.  All livestock farmers therefore needed to be advised to vaccinate immediately after their animals had given birth, usually by the start of summer.

Dr Yogan Pillay, Acting Director, Animal Health, of DAFF, said that the number of RVF cases – and the number of deaths -- was higher than the Department would like.  A key performance area for the Department was to decrease mortality and increase life expectancy, and this brought RVF into focus.  He assured the Committee, however, that the country was well placed to ensure that no World Cup visitors would contract RVF.

Department of Health
Dr Frew G Benson, Cluster Manager: Communicable Diseases, Department of Health, said the prime cause of human RVF infection was direct contact with the tissue or blood of infected animals.  A veterinarian who performed a post-mortem on dead lambs was the first case reported on February 24 2010.  By May 17, 2010, 196 human cases had been reported, including 19 deaths.

Seven provinces had been affected, with the Free State and Northern Cape experiencing the most cases.  The geographic spread tended to match the high rainfall areas.
People who contracted RVF presented with flu-like symptoms, but most cases tended to be asymptomatic, and there was no specific treatment.  Investigations of the fatalities had revealed causes ranging from haemorrhagic fever, associated with hepatitis, encephalitis and renal failure.

The Department had responded to the outbreak by establishing a multi-sectoral sub-committee, including the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, that met weekly to co-ordinate its activities.  These included several support visits to the Free State, and two to the Northern Cape.

The only effective means of fighting RVF was health promotion, mainly through press releases and media interviews, to stress the risks which the outbreak posed.  The Department also communicated with the World Health Organisation (WHO, who provided technical support.

The thrust of the Department’s health promotion was to prevent the slaughtering of sick animals, and to avoid contact with animal tissue that might be infected.  The challenge was to translate this education into behavioural change.  There were practical issues, however, such as farmers and farm workers finding it difficult to slaughter while wearing gloves.

There was no vaccine for humans, and early detection was difficult because of the flu-like symptoms.  This meant quite a number of RVF cases had not been picked up.   However, RVF could not be transmitted from human to human.

He recommended the Departments of Agriculture and Health implement a programme of action to deal with the threats looming in the October/November period.  Resources to deal with the problem had not been budgeted for, and a joint approach needed to be made to Treasury for additional funding.

Ms M Mabuza (ANC) said research had shown the first RVF outbreak had occurred early last year in Greytown in KZN, followed by Bapsfontein in Ekhuruleni in October, and only five months later in the Northern Cape and Eastern Cape.  This represented a failure by the Department of Agriculture, because it had been warned that vaccination was necessary.  Extension officers should have been active, but were not.

Mr N du Toit (DA) said the Department should have seen the outbreak coming, because of last year’s small outbreaks, and asked what went wrong.

Dr Thabete said instructions were issued to Onderstepoort in January to produce vaccine.  The first batch took eight weeks to produce, and all went to the Free State.  By then, the disease had spread to the Northern Cape and Eastern Cape, and the quantities of vaccine required could not be produced.   He explained that as the vaccine had a limited shelf life, it could not be produced in bulk in advance, and stockpiled.

Ms Mabuza said two cases of Congo Fever had been reported in the Free State and Northern Cape, and asked if the disease was under control.

Dr Benson said Congo Fever deaths also resulted from the same haemorrhagic fever virus as RFV, but it was transmitted by ticks, not mosquitoes.  It was endemic to the two areas mentioned, and there were five deaths last year, and about four this year.

Ms Mabusa and Ms M Pilusa-Mosoane (ANC) asked why the Department was not tackling the problem of mosquitoes by spraying streams, as was done in Limpopo in the past.

Dr Benson said spraying posed an environmental problem, because the pools of water in which larvae hatched were widely spread.  Furthermore, the risk factor depended not only on just one wet season, but also on water lying long enough in dry weather for the larvae to hatch out.

Dr Willie Ungerer, Acting Director, Animal Health, DAFF, said despite warnings on rainfall, RFV outbreaks could not be predicted, as mosquito eggs could lie in dried out areas for 20 to 30 years.

Dr Thabete said that outdoor spraying of mosquitoes was not allowed by the Department of Health because of the environmental impact.  By contrast, locust sprays were bio-degradable and did not pose the same threat.

Mr Du Toit suggested that because vaccine cost, say, 50c a dose, and there were an estimated 30 million sheep in South Africa, it would cost the State only R15 million to sort the problem out, using revenue from VAT on dairy products and slaughtered animals.

Dr Thabete said that cost was not a problem for commercial farmers.  However, emerging farmers needed to be given the vaccines.  The Department was working on proposals to ensure all susceptible animals were vaccinated, but it might be necessary to go beyond sheep, cattle, camels and goats, and consider game animals.  Onderstepoort had already been told to produce vaccine in bulk to ensure there was sufficient stock for October/November.

The Chairperson, commenting on the need to include game animals in the vaccination programme, said game farming fell outside the ambit of DAFF, and came under the Department of the Environment, or Tourism, or both.  For this reason, it was essential for the various departments to collaborate on common problems.

Dr Thabete said DAFF was discussing with the Departments of Environment and Tourism whether game farming should fall under DAFF.  It was currently a conservation function, but there were two types of game farming – hunting/slaughtering and conservation.  DAFF was awaiting a response on these discussions.

Ms Pilusa-Mosane asked why more sheep than cattle contracted RVF.

Dr Ungerer said it was a case of sheep being more genetically susceptible to the disease.

Mr L Gaehler (UDM) expressed concern regarding the free movement of animals from province to province, as this would bring infected livestock to rural communities who knew nothing about RVF.

Mr Thabete said the movement of animals was not an issue, as the spread of the disease depended on a specific strain of mosquito, and could not be transmitted from animal to animal.

Ms R Nyalungu (ANC) asked whether there should be closer liaison with climatologists because of the impact which climate change was having on the country.

Dr Pillay said climate change had become a global concern.  The WHO had passed a resolution on climate change relating to various issues affecting health and agriculture.  Member countries had been asked to work across government departments to consider the critical issues, and the Department was involved this process.   By working closely with the weather department it should be possible to predict climate change and its impact on agriculture.

Ms Pilusa-Mosoane asked whether World Cup tourists could be assured that South African food was safe.

Dr Ungerer said there was no threat to visitors, unless they handled sick animals, and this was unlikely.

Ms Mabuza asked why the briefing had focused on the use of the live vaccine, rather than the alternative inactivated vaccine.

Dr Ungerer said the live vaccine was dangerous when used on pregnant animals – causing abortions or deformities – but its effects lasted longer.  The inactivated vaccine needed repeat doses frequently, and was also more expensive.

In response to questions about the safety of biltong, Dr Ungerer said that changes in the pH levels of meat hung for more than 24 hours killed off the virus.  This was why meat carcasses in abattoirs were safe after 24 hours. Abattoir workers were most at risk in the early stages of the slaughtering process, when there was more blood involved.

Mr Du Toit asked whether the vaccination could transfer the infection if the same needle was used.

Dr Ungerer said farmers were dealing with thousands of animals at a time, and it was common practice to use automatic syringes for batches of animals, usually about ten at a time.  Farmers would be unable to get the job done if they were required to change needles for each animal.

Dr Thabete said there were approximately 150 veterinarians employed by the national and provincial governments.  DAFF was currently negotiating with Cuba to get veterinarians trained there, as there was insufficient capacity in South Africa to compete with the private sector.

The Chairperson said specialists were required in various spheres of agriculture, and asked if there was any programme, based on the Department’s vision, that spelt out how many veterinarians, agricultural economists, or agricultural engineers, for example, were required per annum.

Dr Thabete said South Africa produced between 100 and 120 veterinarians a year, from an annual intake of 1 000 students, and this was not enough.  DAFF had started an action programme in liaison with the Department of Higher Education designed to deal with problems in agriculture, and a draft plan would be completed by September.   Vocational training needed to be reintroduced and, in addition, agricultural colleges needed to become institutes of higher education.

The Chairperson said it was important for the Department to have a vision for the future, and that strategies and tactics were developed to achieve objectives.

The meeting was adjourned.


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