An Ebola-like haemorrhagic disease classified by the United Nations as among the most likely viruses to trigger a global pandemic has killed five people in Kenya.
The first significant outbreak of Rift Valley Fever in East Africa for more than a decade claimed its first casualties in northern Kenya’s Wajir County last week, when an 18-year-old man died after three days of internal and external bleeding.
Fears that the viral disease, known to be highly contagious, could spread rapidly have prompted authorities in the county to announce a total ban on the slaughter of livestock as well as on the sale and consumption of meat and milk.
Rift Valley Fever is most usually transmitted to humans through the blood, tissue or organs of livestock that have been infected with the virus through mosquito bites – although mosquitoes can pass the disease to humans directly.
The disease can spread rapidly in rural areas like Wajir where many own cows, goats and camels – all carriers of the disease.
Anyone who is involved in the slaughter of animals, helps to deliver calves or even comes into contact with contaminated blood during the preparation of meat is at risk, officials warned.
The death of a toddler on Sunday will raise fears that the disease is also spread through the consumption of raw milk, a theory that has been put forward in the past but never proved.
Unlike with Ebola, most patients who contract Rift Valley Fever experience only mild flu-like symptoms. But in some cases it triggers blindness-causing lesions on the eyes, brain swelling and haemorrhagic fever that manifests itself with the vomiting of blood as well as bleeding from the rectum, gums, skin and nose.
We have effected a ban on meat and milk consumption… and an up-scaling of food quality control as a measure to prevent further spread
Abdikhakim Billow, Wajir County’s chief medical officer
At least three of the victims suffered fever and bleeding before they died, according to Wajir County’s chief medical officer, Abdikhakim Billow.
The disease has been identified in a number of herds, with behavioural changes including spontaneous abortions, death and bleeding noted, Mr Billow added.
“We have effected a ban on meat and milk consumption… and an up-scaling of food quality control as a measure to prevent further spread,” he said.
Past experience suggests that such measures are unlikely to be effective. Implementing the ban, even though it is only meant to be in force for nine days, will be tricky in an under-resourced, sparsely populated area where some may even be unaware of it.
Many herders are also either nomadic or semi-nomadic, which partly explains why the disease spreads so rapidly.
First reported in Kenya in 1931, Rift Valley Fever has seen more than a dozen outbreaks since then across the continent. In 2000 it even spread to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, raising concern that even Europe or Asia were vulnerable to contagion.
In February, the UN’s World Health Organisation included Rift Valley Fever in a list of eight diseases, or groups of diseases, that risk sparking a major international public health emergency.
With no specific treatment or effective human vaccine for the disease, the WHO said there was “urgent need” to carry our “accelerated research” on how to respond to the threat Rift Valley Fever poses.
Outbreaks of the disease have usually been associated with the flooding of low-lying grasslands following heavy rains like those which have recently fallen on much of East Africa.
More than 200 people were killed in Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia during the last epidemic in eastern Africa in 2006.
Raising fears of an epidemic beyond Kenya’s borders, Rift Valley Fever has killed more 100 cows in eastern Rwanda in recent days and has also been reported on a farm near Kimberley in South Africa’s Northern Cape. However, there have been no confirmed cases of humans contracting the disease in either country, neither of which borders Kenya.
Apart from the risk to human life, Rift Valley Fever can have devastating economic consequences on rural areas like Wajir, where most livelihoods are heavily dependent on livestock.
The disease not only kills many of the animals in an infected herd, it causes females to abort, seriously disrupting breeding for farmers.
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