View on Poverty: Rift Valley fever fight is flawed

Rift valley livestock.jpg
Copyright: Robin Hammond / Panos

Speed read

  • Governments often ban meat consumption to curtail outbreaks
  • Food relief is vital when meat is core part of people’s diet
  • Public health messages must explain what action is needed and why

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Earlier this month, SciDev.Net reported that a new vaccine for Rift Valley fever had shown good results with livestock and was set to go for human trials. This is positive news for the struggle against a disease that infects animals and, to a lesser extent, humans in certain pockets across Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

This week, the Ugandan government confirmed a Rift Valley fever outbreak in the southwest of the country, close to the border with Rwanda. It is Uganda’s first outbreak, and alarm bells are ringing: local media report a dramatic slump in dairy and meat sales

Because Rift Valley fever is a zoonotic disease — in this case passed to humans by exposure to the flesh or bodily fluids of infected animals and via mosquitoes — when outbreaks occur, governments usually ban the slaughter of livestock and the consumption of meat and dairy products. Epidemiologically, at least, this makes sense: to end an outbreak, it is essential to isolate and eradicate the source.

But conventional government approaches to outbreaks are often flawed, says Salome Bukachi, an anthropologist at the University of Nairobi, who has been researching Rift Valley fever outbreaks among pastoralist communities in northeast Kenya.

Firstly, she says, this is because the government does little to mitigate the health and livelihood impact of meat bans. [1]

For the mainly Muslim, ultra-poor pastoralist communities where Bukachi has carried out research, the milk, blood and flesh of animals are the crux of both diets and cultures. “What is the community expected to eat when these bans are there?” Bukachi asks. “The government does not offer alternatives for the communities who depend heavily on these products for food.”

Food relief is vital, she says. The remoteness of these communities and the bad roads make delivering food a challenge, but a “multisectoral approach”, drawing on the expertise and access of aid organisations specialising in food relief delivery, will help, she adds.

Salome Bukachi, an anthropologist at the University of Nairobi, talks to Imogen Mathers about why it is so important to involve social scientists in responses to disease outbreaks. She outlines ways to improve people's access to public health information, and explains why it is so important to provide people facing meat bans with alternative sources of food. Click here to expand

The second big issue is communication, Bukachi tells me. Information and how it is delivered are critical to people’s perception of risk and the actions they take: the more information people have about how the disease spreads and is contained, the more likely they will be to act and so help prevent further outbreaks.

But the government’s “firefighting” approach is often clumsy and insensitive, Bukachi says. Government announcements are broadcast in a dictatorial style, lack detail, and tell people how to behave without telling them why — meaning they’re less likely to respond.

And rather than delivering bland public service announcements on radio and in newspapers, government should channel messages through local ‘gatekeepers’ whom people trust — such as religious leaders.

“We’ve found that when information is passed through … government officials, people did not take that information well,” Bukachi says. But when recognised leaders are used, people listened and didn’t consume livestock products, as would have been the case if religious leaders hadn’t been involved, she adds.

During an outbreak a few years ago, information was passed to people via religious leaders at a Muslim festival, and this vastly improved understanding and response to information.

Finally, government response shouldn’t just involve ‘firefighting’ when outbreaks strike: instead, build up knowledge in disease-free periods, and people will be better able to act when fever arrives.