Camel Diseases and Human Health in the Horn of Africa

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Our translator very thoughtfully marked this camel for me.

In this post we want to discuss one aspect of the veterinary component of the work we hope to participate in when we move to Ethiopia. When we discuss our desire to help Ethiopians (and share the love of Christ) through veterinary medicine, many folks in the U.S. (understandably) haven’t considered the value that people in developing countries place on their livestock, and on the veterinary infrastructure (or lack thereof) that is necessary to enable their livestock to be productive. Even fewer have considered the role of livestock species that are uncommon in America or the West.

A couple of years ago, I (John) got to help my boss write a review article for CAB Reviews (part of the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International), which we titled “The impact of camel disease on human welfare in East Africa.” We’d like to share some of the more interesting (in our humble opinion) information from this article here, to show how significant veterinary medicine can be for people who have extremely limited access to veterinarians and veterinary technology.

Introduction

We begin by describing how half to two-thirds of the 27 million camels in the world are in East Africa (i.e., Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia), where their ability to adapt to extremely harsh environments is highly prized. In East Africa, (dromedary, or one-humped) camels are used for meat, milk, transportation, market/wealth reserve, prestige, hide, and labour. We discuss how 75% of the world’s camels are found in the world’s Least Developed Countries, and are thus often neglected in terms of research into improved production methods and veterinary diagnostics and treatments. When we conducted interviews with pastoralists to better understand their livestock priorities and concerns, camels were ranked the most important species more than 95% of the time.

Adaptation to Extreme Environments

As drought and water shortages increase in the Horn of Africa, the camel’s ability to withstand these challenges (especially as compared to other livestock species) increases the potential value of these animals in this region. Camels can lose up to 30% of their body’s water (~3x that of other domestic animals) and survive. They also have unique mechanisms (including their kidneys, the shape of their red blood cells, and the shape of their bodies in general) that decrease water loss and enable rapid rehydration. Whereas a cow will naturally lose 8-11 gallons of water per day, a camel will lose about 1/3 of one gallon of water per day. In addition, camels are able to withstand extreme heat due to the shape of their bodies and special blood vessels in their noses.

If you want an idea of how harsh the Ethiopian environment can be, check out these photos of the Danakil Depression (and the camels there!).

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The harsh landscape in the Horn of Africa.

Reproduction and Calf Viability

Camels take a relatively long time to reproduce. Fertility rates in the Horn of Africa are around 40%, and gestation is 13 months. If everything goes well, a healthy cow (female camel) will have a calf about once every 28 months. There are a huge number of diseases that cause infertility or loss of prenatal calves in camels, such as pasteurellosis and trypanosomiasis. Losses may be as high as 40%. Once born, camels, like cattle, need “first milk,” or colostrum, from their mothers to protect them from infection until their own immune systems are developed. Many who make a living by herding (i.e. pastoralists), however, told us that they prevent the calves from drinking colostrum, because they believe that the colostrum itself makes the calves sick. Thus calf deaths are extremely common; the number we often heard was 50%. Probably 3/4 of these are caused be calf diarrhea – E. coli, Salmonella, rotavirus, etc.

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Acacia thorns are often used as corrals, here keeping the calves from wandering and protecting them from predators, like hyenas.

Diseases Affecting Production in General

In addition to reproductive diseases, there are many diseases that “cause wasting, weakness, decreased milk production, and in some cases, death. They also decrease in value from an economic/market perspective. These animals thus fail to serve their intended purpose, which is ultimately to benefit the welfare of the people who care for them. Diseases that affect overall health include (but are not limited to) trypanosomiasis, infectious respiratory disease, paratuberculosis (Johne’s disease), Camel Sudden Death Syndrome, intestinal parasite infestations, and ectoparasite (i.e., tick) infestations.”

Uses for Camels in East Africa

Food

Studies have shown that camel milk often makes up 30-50% of the nutritional needs of pastoralists in East Africa. One year old children in this region can receive up to 2/3 of their required mean energy and 100% of their protein from camel milk. Camels in the Horn of Africa produce an average of 11 to 13 pounds of milk per day (higher than cattle in the same region). Lactation lasts between 9 and 18 months. The milk has unique antimicrobial properties, and has lower somatic cell counts than that found in cattle. Mastitis is therefore an extremely significant disease for these camels (and, unfortunately, extremely common). In addition, the fact that the milk is commonly consumed raw is a cause for concern, as there are a large number of food-borne illnesses caused by drinking raw milk (i.e., brucellosis, tuberculosis, salmonellosis, etc.).

The risks of raw milk comes to my mind frequently when I work with camels, because there is a tradition that those who are about to work a herd will come together and share a bowl of fresh milk before getting started. It is considered impolite to decline, but I have found that if I make sure I have a big milk mustache, even if I only sip a little, my hosts are satisfied.

Camels are also slaughtered for their meat, which has a much lower fat content (and is much tougher) than beef. The hump, which consists of fibrous fat, is considered a delicacy in many pastoral areas. As with any slaughtered animal, there are a number of  potential food-borne illnesses associated with camel meat, including salmonellosis, campylobacter infections, toxoplasmosis, and echinococcosis.

Conditions at slaughterhouses are vastly different, as well. A colleague and I visited a camel slaughterhouse at one point, accompanied by the slaughterhouse’s veterinary inspector. We didn’t know quite what to expect, and when men with machetes started hacking at the camels’ hamstrings so they would lay down before being slaughtered, our eyes widened and our jaws dropped. The inspector noticed, and asked, quite innocently, “Is this not how you do it in America?”

 

Camel milk and meat. Note the fat from the hump on the upper left side of the plate.

Transportation

Another use for camels is for hauling goods, milk, water, or, in the case of many pastoralists, for relocating one’s entire home when in search of better pasture. In northern Ethiopia, many people won’t drink camel milk or eat the meat for religious reasons, but have found the camel’s capacity for transportation to be immensely useful. Camels are well-known for hauling salt out of the Danakil Depression in north-eastern Ethiopia.

Economic and Cultural/Societal Resource

Camel herds function as the wealth reserve (and therefore as a measure of cultural prestige) for many in the Horn of Africa, especially pastoralists. The Horn of Africa exports enormous numbers of animals (~$600 million per year) to the Arabian Peninsula, especially around Ramadan. Diseases in the Horn of Africa will occasionally lead to an export ban, which has enormous consequences for those who depend on this trade to make a living.

Zoonoses

We wrap up the article with a discussion of diseases that are shared between humans and camels, including brucellosis, Rift Valley Fever, Q Fever, rabies, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). All of these present serious health risks for the people that care for and come into contact with camels.

Conclusion

Hopefully this post has shown that “the camel is of immense value to many in East Africa, and especially to the pastoralist peoples who live there. This animal, which gets so little notice in most of the world, gives food, provides transportation, income and a sense of self-worth to these people.” Hopefully it also shows the role that a veterinarian can potentially play in East Africa, and how one can love others using their veterinary training and skills.

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Me and a friend.

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