Virus Kills 100,000 Cattle in India, Threatens Livelihoods

Virus kills 100,000 cattle in India and threatens livelihoods

A man stands amid cows infected with the contagious lumpy skin disease at a cow shelter in Jaipur, Rajasthan state, India, on September 21, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Vishal Bhatnagar

A viral disease has killed nearly 100,000 cattle and buffalo in India and sickened more than 2 million more.

The outbreak has caused devastating income losses for farmers, as the disease not only causes deaths, but can also lead to decreased milk production, emaciated animals and birth problems.

The disease, called lumpy skin disease, is spread by blood-sucking insects such as mosquitoes and ticks. Infected cows and buffalo have a fever and develop bumps on their skin.

Farmers suffered severe losses due to extreme weather events over the past year: a record heat wave in India reduced wheat yields in April, insufficient rains in eastern states such as Jharkhand state that dried up winter crops such as legumes and unusually heavy rains in September have damaged rice in the north.

And now, the virus has spread to at least 15 states, with the number of cow and buffalo deaths nearly doubling in three weeks, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

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The spread of the contagion among livestock is having a disproportionate impact on smallholder farmers, many of whom have insulated themselves from the impacts of climate change by raising dairy cattle, said Devinder Sharma, an agricultural policy expert in the northern city of Chandigarh. “It’s a serious, very serious problem and this (disease) … has been growing for the last two years,” he said, adding that the government figures were likely underestimating the true number of deaths from the disease.

The first cases in South Asia were detected in 2019 and it has since spread to India, China and Nepal. It was first recorded in Zambia in 1929 and has spread throughout Africa and more recently to parts of Europe.

Dairy products are among India’s largest agricultural commodities, employing 80 million people and contributing 5 percent of its economy, according to federal data. It is the world’s largest milk producer, accounting for more than a fifth of global production, but exports are only a fraction of this.

To try to protect the industry, authorities are vaccinating healthy cows with a shot designed for a similar disease while efforts are underway to develop a more effective vaccine.

The vast interior of India is now dotted with mass graves of cows. In some places, carcasses rot in the open air and the cries of pain from sick animals echo through the villages. The western state of Rajasthan has seen the worst impact: 60,000 cattle killed and nearly 1.4 million sickened.

“The disease is contagious. Now it is changing from west to east,” said Narendra Mohan Singh, director of the Rajasthan State Animal Husbandry Department.

In the border state of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous, trade and movement of livestock with neighboring states has been halted. But farmers like Amarnath Sharma in the town of Milkipur say they have been left in the dark. Three of his five cows are sick, and although he has heard of the viral disease, he does not know how to help his cattle.

“If these animals don’t get treatment, they will die,” he said.

Farmers in affected states, such as Himachal Pradesh in the Himalayas, have also asked the government for financial help.

Meanwhile, a study of the genetic makeup of the lumpy skin disease virus found it to be very different from earlier versions, said Vinod Scaria, a scientist at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in New Delhi.

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Viruses evolve all the time and not all of these changes are harmful to health. But Scaria, who is one of the study’s authors, said he discussed the need for ongoing monitoring and follow-up of the diseases, as it was unclear how the virus had evolved over the past two years.

“If I had continuous surveillance, I would be prepared,” he said.

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