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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Why Ethiopia?

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The highlands of northern Ethiopia.

Thanks to everyone who has contacted us with words of encouragement and contact information, as we work to get our name out there! We’re very grateful for all of you!

The train has left the station, and we’re in full swing now in terms of being functioning candidates with Christian Veterinary Mission. We’re compiling our mailing list for our monthly newsletters (contact us if you’re interested in being added to that list!), and we’re determining out topics for our weekly blog post over the next few months, based on questions we’re getting from our supporters.

There are three main ways that folks can help us with this process. The first, and most important, is prayer. Our prayer requests can be found here. The second is through financial contributions. We’ll write more about this topic in the next few weeks, but the gist is that CVM requires that its field staff be receiving monthly contributions equivalent to our monthly budget before allowing us to move to Ethiopia and start working. That is to say, we need enough people giving on-going monthly gifts to meet our monthly expenses. On-going gifts that have started before we move over will go towards our one-time expenses, like plane tickets, visas, furniture, a vehicle, etc.

The third way to help out is to connect with us via social media (this blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), and to encourage others who might be interested in our work to check us out!

For the rest of this post, I’m going to talk about why and how Ethiopia has become our intended destination.

Hearing About Ethiopia

When I came back from Iraq in 2009, Kristen and I decided to look into the possibility of working long term in developing countries. I had worked in a number of developing countries as part of the Army Veterinary Corps, and Kristen traveled to Haiti in 2010 and 2011, where she worked short-term with a couple of ministries.

In the spring of 2012, I contacted Christian Veterinary Mission (I’ll explain more on why we chose to work with CVM in a future post), and started a months-long conversation with Fred Van Gorkom, CVM’s Africa Regional Director. When Fred heard about our background, he began to urge us to consider Mekelle, Ethiopia, as a potential destination. For one thing, my time in the Army had taught me that one of my greatest strengths and joys is in training others, and encouraging them to develop their understanding and skills. This led us to talk about the possibility of teaching at a veterinary school in a developing country. Fred, who had served in Ethiopia for nearly three decades, had a number of connections at the veterinary school in Mekelle, and knew that this school had expressed a need and desire for improvements in both pedagogy and its research programs.

In addition, the fact that I was well-versed in both evangelical and Orthodox expressions of Christianity led Fred to urge us to consider Ethiopia; more on this below.

With Fred urging us to consider Ethiopia, we began to learn more about the country, and in particular, about its livestock and veterinary infrastructure, and about the history and status of Christianity and other religions in the country. I plan on writing in greater detail in future posts on both of these topics, but here’s an overview:

Veterinary Medicine in Ethiopia

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Goats in the pastoral Afar Region of eastern Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is a landlocked country located in the Horn of Africa. It has over 100 million inhabitants, and occupies 420,000 square miles (about 1.5 times the size of Texas). The terrain varies from mountain to savanna to desert; and livestock are abundant throughout all areas of the country.

Ethiopia is said to have the highest population of livestock in Africa, with over 150 million animals, made up primarily of cattle, sheep, goats, and camels. This number omits the livestock population in the Afar and Somali regions, where most people are pastoralists (that is, herders), because it is extremely difficult to get accurate counts. Suffice it to say that the numbers are very high. Many of these animals are ultimately exported, often to the Arabian Peninsula via Djibouti, Somalia, or Kenya. Livestock plays a significant economic role in the country.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of veterinary infrastructure, debilitating diseases are common in many herds. This adversely affects Ethiopians in at least two ways; first, it decreases the number of animals born, the number that are brought to slaughter and/or milked, and it drastically decreases the amount of milk and/or meat produced. This is the economic and nutritional impact. It also predisposes people to zoonotic disease – diseases spread from animals to humans, often when animal products are consumed.

A key step toward improving veterinary infrastructure is improving both veterinary medical education and improving the research capacity of those institutions. As research capacity improves, veterinarians and livestock owners will have better information about animal disease in the Ethiopian context, and will be able to make informed decisions regarding animal health.

Christianity in Ethiopia

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The roof of Kidus Giorgis (St. George’s Church), an 11th century stone-carved church in Lalibela.

Ethiopia embraced Christianity by the early fourth century, at the latest, when the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church received her first bishop, St. Frumentius, from Alexandria, Egypt. Today, the EOTC has between 40 and 46 million members. In addition, over the last 200 years, various Protestant churches have appeared and grown throughout the country, so that there are approximately 14 million Protestant Christians of various denominations in Ethiopia.

The relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Protestant Churches has been tense at times, for a number of often complicated reasons. Recently, members of the EOTC and a number of Protestant churches gathered in Addis Ababa, at the first ever regional consultation of the Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative, to discuss the relationship between Orthodox and Protestant churches and Christians.

Ultimately, for there to be peace between Orthodox and Protestant Christians, there must be increased understanding in where the true and important differences lie, as well as what is genuinely shared in common (indeed, 20 years of communism went a long way in teaching Ethiopia that in many cases the commonalities far outweigh the differences). People who are able to understand both the Orthodox and Protestant perspective could be very helpful in this regard.

In addition, there is currently a need at the local Orthodox seminary for teachers of biblical languages, biblical studies, and patristics.

Why Ethiopia?

We are going to Ethiopia (God willing) because we believe that’s where we can best share Christ’s love in terms of the gifts, skills, and experiences that he has given us. We remain unspeakably grateful for your support as we pursue this goal.