Animal health: A quick check-up with Dr Mpho Maja

Although Mzansi’s animal industry suffered severe blows in the past two years due to disease outbreaks, Dr Mpho Maja says we are experiencing far fewer devastating outbreaks compared to other countries.

Dr Mpho Maja, director of animal health at the national department of agriculture, land reform and rural development. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Dr Mpho Maja, director of animal health at the national department of agriculture, land reform and rural development. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Despite numerous disease outbreaks in the past two years, South Africa’s animal health sector remained proactive and effective. It established strong working relationships with affected industries, and worked hard to implement sustainable solutions to eradicate the disease crises.

This is the view of the animal health director at the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development, Dr Mpho Maja.

Maja says it is these relationships and solutions that have helped Mzansi experience far fewer devastating diseases outbreaks than elsewhere in the world. Yet, the past two years have brought along their share of notorious diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease, rabies, avian influenza and the highly contagious African swine fever.

Based on her 25 years of experience working in different divisions in the country’s animal health sector, Maja believes a lot has improved in the sector. She is hopeful that more progress will be made as long as the parties involved maintain their working relationships and keep getting stronger.

In an interview with Food For Mzansi, she shares the inside scoop on her own and the country’s navigating the animal health landscape.

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Sinesipho Tom: Why did you want to become a vet?

Dr Mpho Maja: I actually wanted to become a medical doctor throughout high school. Then, when I was doing matric, I saw a picture of a woman holding a stethoscope examining an elephant and I thought I really wanted to do that. I investigated what that was about and I found out she was a wildlife vet.

I then applied [to study] veterinary sciences at Medunsa, which is now officially known as Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, and got accepted. But my dream of becoming a wildlife vet didn’t come true because when I qualified, that field was still very exclusive. For a black female it wasn’t possible, so I changed direction. But I love what I am doing now.

What does your role at the department entail?

Our primary mandate is to control animal diseases in the country, so we do that in a number of forms. We set standards, we formulate policies of disease control and then the provinces implement those policies. We guide and assist provinces that experience disease outbreaks, especially for diseases of national importance.

We are also responsible for the trade of animals and animal products. We do this by setting norms and standards for imports and exports. This is to ensure compliance to the norms, standards and requirements that the trade partner have set and then we negotiate protocol with trade partners.

What goes right and what needs improvement in the sector?

There is actually a lot that is currently right with the animal health sector and livestock sector. For starters, there are a number of devastating diseases that we don’t have in the country that other countries have. We pride ourselves in that. Also, the working relations we have established with industries are very exciting.

In the last five to seven years, those relationships have even gotten stronger, and we are starting to have common goals. Even where we differ, we agree we differ and still move on and move in the same direction. So I think if there is one thing that we are doing right, it is that.

What needs improvement? We can work better together. We can also try and support all livestock producers. The one thing that I always say, in probably all the meetings where we sit to discuss different diseases and approaches, is our level of awareness. That is one thing that we need to improve: awareness to livestock owners to improve their biosecurity, to take care of their animals and to make sure they are overprotected.

What are some of the major blows you have lived through?

In the past two years there have been a number of disease outbreaks. We have had quite a number of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreaks. We had three so far in the free-zone areas – two in Limpopo and now one in KwaZulu-Natal, so that was the biggest blow to our industry.

Then there is African swine fever that requires everybody’s assistance – and the awareness that I was talking about earlier. We also have the highly pathogenic avian influenza, which is also very difficult to control and to prevent because it is transmitted by wild birds.

African swine fever is also transmitted by warthogs, which nobody own. They just roam around and pass on the disease. Those are some of the blows. But the biggest blow is the rabies situation. There have been a number of children who have lost their lives. Just this year, I think, we are sitting at over ten children who have lost their lives and, as a mother, that’s not a nice thing to hear.

As a professional, you sit back and you think, ‘Am I doing enough to prevent these losses; what more can we do as a profession, as a nation to solve the rabies crisis?”

Where do you see the sector going in the next five years?

From strength to strength. The partnerships that I was talking about earlier – I am very hopeful about them. I see a good, bright future, but – despite that optimism – all relationships and all partnerships have problems and ups and downs.

So in the next five years, if we keep these partnerships going and strengthen them even further, I honestly see us having an animal health sector we can be proud of. And sustainable systems. There is also a number of projects that we are working on with industries that are going to bring sustainability and better animal health.

Five years from now, we should be seeing a very nice, lucrative livestock industry with fewer health problems.

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