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In Kutch camps, sick cows gnash teeth, flies cover wounds, as they wait to die of lumpy skin disease

Caused by a capripox virus, the disease affects both cows & buffaloes. While official figures peg the casualty in Gujarat at 1,200, locals claim number is higher. It's also spread to Rajasthan.

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Gandhidham: The sound of gnashing teeth punctuated the devotional music dedicated to the Hindu deities Ram and Sita being played at a makeshift cattle care camp in Gujarat’s Gandhidham, as a cow writhed in pain from an open wound oozing blood and pus, Friday.

Her severe distress seemed to suggest that she may well have been counting her last few hours in a land, which has elevated the animal to the status of a revered mother, or ‘gau mata‘.

The cow which was gnashing its teeth in pain was not the only one in misery here. The makeshift camp in the state’s Kutch district was filled with at least 50 such cows and buffaloes — infected with the lumpy skin disease that has gripped the cattle population of Gujarat and several areas of Rajasthan — when ThePrint visited the area Friday.

Fourteen cows, including the one whose condition has been described above, died during the night.

A dead cow being buried | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
A dead cow being buried | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Reports vary on when the disease first broke out, with locals saying that the cows started dying over the last two to three weeks. So far, the disease has been reported from at least 16 districts in Rajasthan and 20 in Gujarat.

Caused by a capripox virus, the disease — which affects both cows and buffaloes — gets its name from the large, firm nodules that develop on the skin of the cattle as a result of the disease. Depression, conjunctivitis and excess salivation are some other symptoms found in the diseased animals.

Eventually the nodules burst, causing the animals to bleed. There is currently no cure for the viral disease, and treatment mostly targets clinical symptoms.

The disease is said to have spread to India from Pakistan, where cases were reported earlier.

“The disease was earlier limited to certain pockets in Africa, but later spread to other continents,” Dr. Rathish R. L., assistant professor, Department of Veterinary Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Pookode, Kerala, told ThePrint over phone.

He added: “The most prevalent reason (for the spread) was long distance transport of the animals. The disease spreads when the susceptible animals come in contact with the scabs falling off recovering animals. The virus is very stable and hence the disease is very contagious. As far as India is concerned, the initial outbreaks are believed to be from illegal transport of animals along the porous international border between India-Bangaldesh-China.”

Talking about the ways the virus can be transmitted, Rathish said it may be carried from an infected animal to a healthy one through insect bites.

“There are reports of international transport of disease because of change in wind velocity and directions as a part of climate change. When the winds changed, insects carrying the virus are believed to have been redistributed to previously uninfected countries,” he added.

While the animal husbandry department in Gujarat pegs the number of deaths from the disease to just over 1,200 in the past month, volunteers at local camps, set up to take care of the diseased animals, claimed the number to be much higher — possibly 20,000.

In Rajasthan, an estimated 5,807 had succumbed to the disease by Thursday. The number of infected animals had touched 1,20,782. In Gujarat, the number of those infected stood at 55,950 Tuesday.

In the makeshift camp for diseased animals in Gandhidham, at least six dead cows were awaiting burial when ThePrint visited Friday. A mass grave has been dug up not far from the camp, where for the past two weeks, the dead have been buried every day.

The streets of Gandhidham are filled with infected cattle.

Volunteers in care camps set up across Kutch alleged that the situation is compounded because of the lack of action from the administration and claimed that care for the diseased animals was completely community driven.

With no standard guidelines on how to treat the infected cattle, different camps were adopting different approaches, they said, adding that the ban on cow slaughter in the state was partly to be blamed for the situation, with abandoned cattle being among the worst hit.

ThePrint reached a senior official in the state’s agriculture, farmers welfare and cooperation department, over text messages and video calls, but received no response till the time of publication of this report.


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Treatment and disposal of carcasses

A little over 50 kilometres from Gandhidham, in the small town of Samakhiali, a small plot next to a bus depot has been converted into a cow camp by local volunteers.

Kanjibhai Ahir — who heads the camp — has gathered a group of over 30 volunteers, who respond to calls from locals who want their infected cows to be taken care of.

Ahir and his volunteers are untrained in veterinary sciences. They have support from a Jain religious group, which is supplying them with medicines and ayurvedic formulations.

The medicines being used here include Nimesulide — an anti-inflammatory drug — and paracetamol injections, as well as ayurvedic herbs.

Ahir told ThePrint that next to no help was received from the government.

“We pay Rs 500 from our own pockets to hire a JCB (machine) to take away the carcasses. All the volunteers are here because of their love for ‘gaumata’. We do not even have a (veterinary) doctor here. The doctor comes to this town from Bhuj (over a 100 km away) once a day. If an animal is very sick and needs urgent attention, we can do nothing,” he said.

A dog sniffs at the buried carcasses | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
A dog sniffs at the buried carcasses | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

ThePrint visited the area where the carcasses of the diseased cows were being disposed of. Next to the Samikhiali lake by the NH41 highway, a pit had been dug out. Three fresh carcasses lay uncovered in the area. Meanwhile, a pack of dogs fought as they tried to pull out the remains of older carcasses from under the mud cover.

Similar pits have been dug in multiple cities, including Bhuj and Bhachau, where cattle carcasses are being buried daily, ThePrint has learnt.

Meanwhile, care camps set across Kutch are experimenting with different treatment methods to try and help the infected cattle.

In Bhachau, Kamlesh Padhiyar, a manager of the Bhachau Lodheswar Panjarapol (a gaushala), said they have been adding potassium permanganate, a disinfectant, to the drinking water of infected animals.

“We give them dry food so that they drink more of this water. The treatment has helped and we have been able to save a large number of cows,” Padhiyar claimed.

The camp in Bhachau | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
The camp in Bhachau | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Dr. Nikunj R Pipaliya, a veterinarian from Rajkot, who is volunteering in Gandhidham, told ThePrint that owing to the lack of antivirals against the disease, he has been prescribing drugs like paracetamol and antihistamines to alleviate the symptoms.

“Since they are not able to eat properly, we also give them multivitamins,” he said.

Neem leaves being burnt to keep away flies and insects at the Gandhidham camp | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
Neem leaves being burnt to keep away flies and insects at the Gandhidham camp | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

While many of the camps are filled with swarms of flies hovering around the diseased cattle, at Gandhidham neem leaves are constantly kept burning to keep such insects away.

Community driven care

Deepakbhai Patel, a member of the Kamdhenu Gaushala Trust in Gujarat, has been at the helm of the camp set up at Gandhidham.

A number of other organisations, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Sewa Sadhna, are funding cattle camps such as the one here, ThePrint was told.

In all these areas, local volunteers who had never heard of the disease before, have come forward to take care of the diseased animals.

ThePrint spoke to Hency Joshi, a 29-year-old who was working at the camp along with her 19-year-old sister Neeta and 52-year-old mother Kashish, donating cattle feed that the three had prepared at home.

“We have been told by the doctor here that a mix made of jowar (millet) cooked in jaggery is beneficial for the cows,” said Joshi, a techie, who has been volunteering here after work hours. 

Similarly, 46-year-old Pusaram Makwane, who works at an oil refinery, has been driving around the city, collecting rotis from residents to feed the cattle at the camp.

Locals in many of the places visited by ThePrint claimed that the widespread infection was a fallout of the slaughter ban.

According to Ahir, the cattle bearing the brunt of the infection are those abandoned by their owners and now roaming the streets.

“Cattle in small farms and people’s homes have remained safe. However, the streets and highways are full of cattle who have been abandoned because they no longer produce milk,” he claimed.

“Earlier, once the cows stopped producing milk, they would be sold off and slaughtered. But now the cattle cannot be touched. They are roaming the streets and spreading the infection,” he added.

(This is an updated version of the copy.)

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)


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