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Kenya: Alert As Virus Leaps Over Buffer Zone

The virus causing Rift Valley Fever has outmanoeuvred local and international experts, vaulting over a buffer between North Eastern and Coast provinces to land// in Maragua, Central province, for the first time. This has created fear that the killer bug could be headed for Nairobi.

The buffer was created by the ministry of Livestock Development, with help from World Health Organisation (WHO) and Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

It aimed at vaccinating two million animals while maintaining zero contact with livestock from other parts of the country.

Increase dramatically
The jump could see the number of animals to be vaccinated increasing dramatically, and possibly overwhelming available capacity.

Started about three weeks ago, the programme had vaccinated only 120,000 animals by Sunday. The country depends on erratic supply of vaccine from the United States and South Africa, although the virus was first isolated in Kenya and a cure developed by local scientists.

The Director of Veterinary Services, Dr Joseph Musaa, says Kenya should have strategic reserves of the vaccine "because the problem occurs here and is bound to recur."

Locally, the vaccine is developed at the Kenya Veterinary Vaccine Production Institute, Kabete, but the supplies cannot meet the current demand. "It is ironic that we have to import vaccines from countries that acquired the technology from us," he says.

The outbreak is the second most severe since 1930. But this time around, its re-appearance was predicted as early as September.

But the virus met little organized resistance and went ahead to claim over 100 human lives, scores of livestock and wildlife. It is feared the fever could spread to Juba valley in the Sudan, triggering a major food crisis in the region.

What happens next is also predictable, the bug will soon go into hiding -it is not clear where to - but it will come back in three to seven years.

The cycle will continue unless two things happen: pre-emptive measures are made to mitigate human and animal loses, or mutation of the virus - changing genetically and becoming even more virulent. Climate factors could also make it alter its visiting and parasitic habits.

In September, a UN Food and Agricultural Organisation publication quoted the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration warning that rise in temperatures in the region could spark an outbreak of the disease.

By early November, local weathermen had correctly predicted floods and landslides in several parts of the country, including North Eastern province.

"It was too obvious not to see it coming. But no pre-emptive action was taken. We are famous for closing the barn door after the horse has bolted," said the director of Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri), Dr Davy Koech, last week. He said there had been enough warning, but requirements such as animal vaccines and awareness programmes were brought in long after the virus had struck.

In candid discussions with top scientists from Kemri and US Centres for Diseases Control, it came out clearly that Africa has to rein in the bug as a joint and urgent concern.

The fever is geographically confined to Africa, except once in 2000 when an outbreak was reported in Saudi Arabia and, subsequently, in Yemen. The source was later traced to East Africa. The fever is generally found in eastern and southern Africa, mainly among livestock keeping communities. The most notable outbreak in Kenya was in 1950-1951, which resulted in the death of an estimated 100,000 sheep.

Exported from Sudan
In 1977, the virus was detected in Egypt, but it was suspected to have been exported there through infected animals from Sudan. It has once afflicted Senegal, in West Africa, following heavy floods. The 1998 outbreak was the most severe in Kenya. It caused 400 human deaths.
Currently, there is no established course of treatment. But the drug ribavirin, an antiviral, has modest success.

The virus causes haemorrhagic fever - just like Marburg and Ebola do - but it is less virulent.

Source: Bio-Bio Technology
SRI
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