By Violet Barasa
I am now two months into the fieldwork for my PhD, working in pastoralist communities in northern Tanzania, mainly the Maasai in Monduli, Simanjiro and Longido districts. I have been spending time with members of the SEEDZ project, observing what they do and listening in on focus group discussions with locals about common perceptions of zoonotic diseases.
These are interesting discussions – and often the older members of the group exhibit tremendous knowledge of symptoms of the various endemic zoonoses here and how people cope with them.
There is however, a disconnect. The locals generally seem to under-appreciate the potential threat to people from livestock diseases, and when we ask about brucellosis, or ugonjwa wa maziwa as it is referred to here, people only talk about symptoms in animals. They are less aware of people contracting the disease.
I will be collecting information on this disconnect in my own study, with the aim of establishing the impact for disease transmission in people. This will be not only for brucellosis, but for other zoonotic illnesses too.
Animal-human interaction in pastoralist settings are complex. People, livestock and wildlife share both food and a home.
Among the Maasai in northern Tanzania, young morans (pastoral males in their late teens) herd cattle and take them to water, walking long distances often covering up to 20 kilometres each way in search of pasture, particularly during the dry months of the year. Wild animals are a common encounter and it is not unusual for these teenagers to wrestle down predators that threaten their cattle.
A group of young pastoral men recently told me about their triumphant encounter with a lion that had been killing cattle in Monduli district. The boys wrestled the lion down and killed it using locally-made swords!
However, as the examples below indicate, pastoral people’s less dramatic encounters with wildlife also puts them and their domestic animals in danger of being exposed to wildlife zoonoses.
Children and rabies
In many pastoral homes, it is common to see children playing with dogs and they are often exposed to dog bites. On one occasion, whilst visiting a village in Simanjiro, I asked the adults if the dogs that were present in the compound were vaccinated against rabies. The answer was no. Unsurprisingly, rabies, or kichaa cha mbwa as the disease is known locally, is said to be one of the most common wildlife zoonoses in these settings. (The dogs are free-roaming, hence the wildlife label.)
Malignant catarrhal fever is also common in pastoralist settings in East Africa, particularly in northern Tanzania. This is a viral infection hosted in wildebeest which is mainly contagious during the calving season. Wildebeest younger than a year can pass on the virus through nasal secretions and cattle are particularly susceptible. The disease is common, especially during April to June, when wildebeest are frequently spotted in cattle grazing grounds.
“This disease is very bad, it kills very fast,” one local man told me. “My cow ate the grass after the wildebeest had been and it died within minutes.”
Dry season danger
Other hot spots for contamination and potential transmission of zoonoses are communal watering points. During the dry season (July to November) when water scarcity become particularly acute, communal watering points, which are shared by far-flung communities spanning dozens of miles apart, become the only respite for people and animals, including wildlife. Here, contact and interaction between people, livestock and wild animals is constant, and air-borne and water-borne zoonotic diseases are likely to transmit between species.
In pastoral communities such as those in Tanzania – the Sukuma, Maasai, Barbaig and Kurya – it is impossible to separate human health from animal health: animals, especially young calves, commonly sleep in the same house as people; children play with dogs; farmers use no protective wear for handling dead animals and aborted materials.
In community settings like these, the transmission of diseases such as brucellosis, tuberculosis, rabies, Rift Valley fever (RVF) and Q fever between animals and humans is easy. There is, arguably, no approach that can address these health complexities other than collaborative, inter- and trans- disciplinary ones, such as the One Health approach.
I am very much looking forward to what the next few months bring, and I will keep you posted on how things unfold out here.