Traceability system the only way SA can manage FMD

Traceability system the only way SA can manage Foot and Mouth Disease.
Traceability system the only way SA can manage Foot and Mouth Disease.
Image: Stock

SA is in the middle of a severe outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). Although it's not harmful to humans, it causes mouth ulcers and foot lesions in hoofed animals such as cattle, goats and camels, making them lame.

The disease is highly contagious. The only way to prevent the spread is to restrict the movement of animals and to prevent infected animals from having any contact with others.

FMD occurs in more than 100 countries worldwide, mainly in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America. Over the past two years there have been outbreaks in Mongolia, Russia, India, Israel, Ethiopia, Kenya, SA and Zimbabwe. In 2013, India had the worst outbreak in a decade, with over 64,000 infected animals and 6,100 deaths. SA has started to restrict the movement of animals in affected parts of the country as it's the best way to contain the outbreak.

But it's a huge blow to the country, which produces around $145m (about R2bn) worth of exports in red meat annually. Agriculture contributed R72.2bn to the country's GDP in 2015.

The outbreak also affects Namibia, Botswana and Kingdom of eSwatini, which rely on SA meat imports.

There is another, less economically damaging way of controlling FMD - the use of traceability systems. These have been used effectively in Namibia to map out which areas need to be quarantined and manage the movement of livestock.

The system tracks animal movement, identifies all animals uniquely, monitors animal health, assists in disease control and manages feed. Because it's so efficient, traceability is now a requirement to export meat to the EU and US.

In Southern Africa, including Namibia, eSwatini and Botswana, national livestock traceability systems are already in use - but SA doesn't currently have a system in place.

In 2015, there was an outbreak of FMD in the north of Namibia. It was the worst case in 40 years. It eventually cost $13m to control and the country was finally declared free of the disease in January 2016.

A major factor in Namibia's success was that it had a fully functional traceability system - known as the Namibian Livestock Identification and Traceability System - in place. The traceability system can also be used to manage animal movement. This is key to preventing the spread FMD.

Tracking needs to be done between different farms, auction areas as well as between the farms and abattoirs.

It's a complex process that's made easier with the use of an electronically based system - but only if all the necessary data has been up-loaded.

The full extent of SA's outbreak still needs to be determined. As Namibia's fairly recent experience shows, a national traceability system would make a big difference in allowing the country to track and manage the disease. This could save animals' lives and help get this crucial part of the agricultural economy moving again.

This article was first published in 'The Conversation' on January 18

Dr Prinsloo is a lecturer in informatics at the University of Pretoria