Seven years since the major outbreak of foot and mouth disease devastated farming here in the UK, another animal health disaster story is unfolding just over a thousand miles to the south, in Morocco. A viral disease, called peste des petit ruminants (PPR), in sheep and goats has broken out in Morocco for the first time. This story may not be reaching the main news channels, but it is having a serious impact on the livelihoods of the many people who rely on these animals to survive, and it could spread to neighbouring countries.

The effect of the outbreak is summed up by the FAO Chief Veterinary Officer "…The economic impact might not be as great as in the case of rinderpest in cattle, but the social impact would be greater, considering the role played by small ruminants in the social life of the affected communities." The goat is often referred to as the ‘poor man’s cow’ and in many developing countries herders have all of their assets tied up in their animals.

The current outbreak is the first ever occurrence of the disease in Morocco. The disease is endemic in areas of West Africa and has been spreading in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa (Kenya and Uganda), but its appearance in Morocco indicates that PPR has now crossed the natural barrier of the Sahara and poses a risk to other parts of North Africa. The sheep and goat farmers of Spain and Portugal are also probably casting a wary eye on this outbreak.

PPR is a viral disease caused by a morbillivirus which is related to the rinderpest virus (of cattle). It is very contagious in domestic goats and sheep and small wild ruminants. Transmission is through close contact between animals. In its acute form it is characterized by high fever, discharges from the eyes and nose, sores in the mouth, lesions of the mucous membranes, laboured breathing, and diarrhoea. Mortality rates can reach 80% in acute outbreaks and in "super acute" cases the mortality rate is 100%, with affected animals dying in the first week.

Unlike bluetongue, another viral disease of sheep that has moved up from Africa to become established in parts of Europe, PPR is not spread by insect vectors. It is spread, instead, by contact, so the most likely cause of the outbreak in Morocco is through the movement of live, infected animals.

For North African countries, the control of animal movements over borders is difficult, especially in the southern part of the region where herders follow a nomadic lifestyle. Morocco’s sheep population is 17 million and its goat population is 5 million and farming these animals plays an important role in supporting the livelihoods of millions of families. It is slightly surprising, that if nomads are linked to bringing the disease across the Sahara (as suggested by the FAO news-release), why this hadn’t happened sooner as, the disease has been identified (according to records in the CAB Archive) in Senegal and other parts of West Africa since the 1940’s and 1950’s.

The main measures to prevent and control PPR include controlling animal movements, quarantine of affected or suspect farms, and vaccination around field outbreaks and in high risk areas. For the current situation in North Africa, the FAO is recommending that countries take a number of actions including:

Review and revise its animal disease emergency and contingency plans.

Raise awareness and inform veterinarians, producers and the different governmental services about PPR, its risks, and clinical signs.

Promote the prompt reporting of suspected cases to the authorities.

Reinforce epidemiological surveillance in the zones of high risk.

Improve inspection of sheep and goat flocks and institute animal movement control procedures, particularly at livestock markets.

Looking the the CAB Abstracts Database there are nearly 600 records on this disease, covering all aspects of the disease and its control in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. The recent spread of the disease could be another example of viruses taking advantage of increasing movement of people and animals across the globe with the relentless growth of international trade and globalisation. The poor farmers and their families in Morocco who will bear the brunt of this disease will bear witness to the fact that not everyone benefits from globalisation.

And, if anyone knows the origin of the French proverb, ‘Death takes the poor man’s cow and the rich man’s child’, then let me know.

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