Brucellosis & Covid: A parallel vaccine drive is crucial

While we are putting our all into the fight against Covid-19 to save lives and the South African economy, we can't ignore a second epidemic that is threatening half a million jobs in the beef industry. We need to be vaccinating for bovine brucellosis too, argues economist Lunathi Hlakanyane

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If we are to successfully avert a coronavirus-esque impact of brucellosis on the beef value chain and spare half a million jobs in a country already reeling from excessive unemployment, it is critically imperative that the Covid-19 vaccination drive is administered in parallel to a nationwide vaccination drive to reduce the spread of B. abortus in cattle, argues economist Lunathi Hlakanyane.

The 27th of March will officially mark the anniversary of the first decreed mass social lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19. When President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation on that fateful Friday evening, no one could have predicted the sheer enormity of what was to come. 

The first wave of the pandemic ground economic activity to a halt with devastating socioeconomic outcomes. As the pandemic wrung essential industries dry, the economy shed 2.2 million jobs while the general number of employed persons declined from 16.4 million to 14.7 million, nudging the unemployment rate to 30.8% by the end of the second quarter of 2020, according to Stats SA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey

Although South Africa remained relatively food secured at the national level, the General Household Survey revealed that the number of individuals who reported severe hunger increased from 4.3% to 7% since the lockdown began. 

As the pandemic entered its second contagion wave, the average food basket hiked to R4 051.20 — notably higher than the stipulated minimal wage — as food price inflation surged by 17%. Perhaps most devastating was the cost of the pandemic on the health of South Africans. 

Since March of the previous year, the virus has infected over 1,5 million people and further claimed the lives of more than 50 000 to date. Unbeknownst to many, however, while South Africa battled Covid-19 another anthropozoonosis vectored by a common staple, cattle, emerged like a rising tide along the coast of KwaZulu-Natal.

Also read: Brucellosis: 795 cows tested positive in KZN

Brucellosis, the other deadly epidemic

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In November 2020 an outbreak of the zoonotic disease bovine brucellosis spread across the coastal region of KwaZulu-Natal with initial confirmed cases totalling over 400 cows. Brucellosis is a constituent of the genus brucellaceae. Within the bacterial family of brucelleceae is brucella abortus or B. abortus — an infectious pathogen that affects both cattle and humans. 

As the name suggests, brucella abortus causes abortion in pregnant cows in the latter stages of gestation and increases the probability of miscarriage in humans. The disease is also linked to massive reductions in milk produced by lactating cows as well as a lower reproduction rate. 

500 000 people are directly employed in the beef industry and a further 2,1 million who depend on it for their livelihoods.

As a zoonotic infection, the main vectors of brucellosis are direct contact with infected animals’ biological fluids (blood, placenta, urine, etc) and unpasteurised or raw dairy products. Unpasteurised cheese and full cream dairy products are a particularly conducive breeding ground for the development and transmission of B. abortus. In unpasteurised cheese, for example, the pathogen can remain actively infectious for up to 60 days. 

For everyday dairy derivatives like ice cream, butter and whey the lifespan of B. abortus can be anything between four to 20 weeks. As with the coronavirus, the disease causes fever-like symptoms including flu, weakness, loss of appetite, weight loss and malaise. The incubation period before symptoms appear is between four to eight weeks. 

Infection is particularly high among livestock farm workers, hunters and veterinarians who come in direct contact with free range animals. Fortunately, evidence of human-to-human transmission is extremely rare. Nevertheless, a simple two-drug regimen consisting of streptomycin and doxycycline may be administered to alleviate symptoms associated with the infection in humans. 

Although there is no known cure for brucellosis in cattle, there are, however, effective vaccines to quell the spread of the B. abortus strain. Two vaccines in particular — S19 and RB51 — have proven quite efficient in this regard. 

Also read: Brucellosis: Say no to unpasteurised milk

Extreme economic threat

Although the first case of brucellosis outbreak was first reported in KZN, it is entirely possible the disease has spread to other provinces as well. If left unregulated, it risks severely impacting margins in the multibillion Rand livestock value chain, disrupting retail beef prices and further diminishing SA’s competitiveness in international trade, as was the case with the temporary ban of local beef exports in the wake of the foot and mouth disease outbreak. 

In addition, for the 500 000 people directly employed in the beef industry and further 2,1 million who depend on it for their livelihoods, the emergence of brucellosis casts a very dark cloud. 

‘The resuscitation of the economy from Covid-induced rigor mortis is, to a large degree, intricately tied to the extent to which its mainstay industries, such as agriculture, recover.’

In his first State of the Nation Address since the outbreak of the pandemic, Pres. Cyril Ramaphosa triumphantly announced that, as part of the global vaccination drive, Government had secured 41 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, the global COVAX facility as well as Pfizer. 

If we are to successfully avert a coronavirus-esque impact of brucellosis on the beef value chain and spare half a million jobs in a country already reeling from excessive unemployment, it is critically imperative that the Covid-19 vaccination drive is administered in parallel to a nationwide vaccination drive to reduce the spread of B. abortus in cattle. 

Various estimates report that more than 10% of SA’s dairy cattle become infected with brucellosis annually, resulting in millions of rands of losses from lost milk and beef sales. In turn, these sales losses lower the contribution of beef production to the gross value of agricultural production, which subsequently lowers the contribution of agriculture to national GDP. 

In other words, the resuscitation of the economy from Covid-induced rigor mortis is, to a large degree, intricately tied to the extent to which its mainstay industries, such as agriculture, recover. Beside the economic impact, the outbreak of brucellosis compromises nutritious food access for the millions of South Africans who derive their protein intake from beef consumption. The pairing of the Covid-19 vaccination drive with efforts to combat brucellosis is, therefore, both a food security and economic recovery necessity. 

The coronavirus has certainly given us a myriad of invaluable health, economic, social, political, and cultural lessons. Perhaps the greatest of these is the lesson it has given us in virology management; from pathogen detection, treatment and future deflection. These lessons should be applied in managing other anthrozoonoses, like B. abortus, that threaten not only the stability of our food supply chains but the very essence of normalcy. 

Also read: Covid-19: Agri will show its worth in third wave

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