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‘Low immunity, hard to isolate’: How ageing stray cattle contributed to lumpy skin disease outbreak

Free movement of unproductive cattle prone to infections has proven to be a severe challenge in restricting the viral disease and contributed most to mortality load, say experts.

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New Delhi: Over the past few years, the rising population of stray cattle has been a menace to farmers. In several states in northern India, farmers regularly guard their fields at night and spend thousands on fencing to protect their crops.

But the impact of stray cattle — which mostly consist of unproductive, out-of-milk cows let loose by farmers, as well as bulls — is not limited to crop damage.

The abundance of stray cattle likely played a key role in the recent lumpy skin disease outbreak, with strays contributing the most to the mortality load, experts and government officials told ThePrint.

This is largely due to the fact that unproductive stray cattle lack immunity due to poor diet and are prone to infection when compared to domesticated cattle. They also spread the infection faster because, unlike domesticated cattle, they are seldom quarantined and roam freely.

Lumpy skin disease is a viral infection that affects cows and buffaloes and is usually transmitted by vectors like mosquitoes. Once an animal is infected, circular firm nodes, or lumps, appear on the skin alongside fever and lesions in the mouth, leading to death in some cases.

Till the end of September, the disease had affected 20 lakh cattle in 15 Indian states with over 97,000 reported cattle deaths. Of this, Rajasthan accounts for close to 14 lakh infections and more than 60,000 deaths.

Also read: ‘They’re family’ — confusion, heartbreak in Kutch villages as cows keep dying of lumpy skin disease

‘Viral load high in strays’

Rajasthan is the second-largest milk producing state (after Uttar Pradesh) and also home to the largest population of stray cattle in India. According to the 20th Livestock Census, the stray cattle population in India was more than 50 lakh in 2019 with Rajasthan accounting for about a quarter of the unproductive cattle in India.

“Out-of-milk stray animals are mostly abandoned by farmers. They usually scavenge for food, have low body-weight and poor immunity. This is why the viral load in stray cattle during a disease outbreak is high,” said Prafull Mathur, joint director at the animal husbandry department in Rajasthan.

Mathur added that stray cattle accounted for 70 per cent of all animal mortality in Rajasthan due to lumpy skin disease. The outbreak also led to an 18 per cent fall in milk supply in the state in September.

“It is difficult to isolate infected stray cattle, which is one reason why the disease continues to spread. Overall, for the entire county, more than two-thirds of the mortality due to the virus was seen in stray animals,” an official from the central government’s animal husbandry and dairying department, who wished to not be named, told ThePrint.

Stray cattle is, however, one among a variety of factors — including a new variant of the virus and excess rainfall leading to increase in vector population — which led to the current disease outbreak and high mortality, ThePrint had reported earlier.

Why stray population is surging

Stray cattle roaming the streets has become a common sight over the past few years as vigilante groups restricted transport of unproductive animals, while the ban on cattle slaughter was enforced strictly by states.

“Earlier, despite the ban on cow slaughter in most states, unproductive cattle were transported to states where slaughter was allowed (such as Kerala and West Bengal). But this has stopped now, leading to a surge in the stray cattle population,” said a government official requesting not to be named.

According to R.K. Panwar, who recently retired as additional director at the Uttar Pradesh animal husbandry department, free movement of stray cattle poses a severe challenge in restricting the spread of the viral outbreak.

“Lockdowns were imposed during the Covid pandemic to restrict movement and limit transmission of the virus among people. But this can’t be implemented with strays in a viral outbreak. So, these unproductive animals became a source of infection,” he said.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also read: What’s lumpy skin disease — the viral outbreak killing cattle in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab

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