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[KAMPALA] A new maize disease, not previously reported in Africa, will threaten food security and the livelihoods of millions of people on the continent, scientists have said.

Rough dwarf maize disease was identified early this year in Masindi district and Namulonge in western and central Uganda, according to Godfrey Asea, head plant breeder for the cereals research programme at Uganda's National Crops Resources Research Institute (NACRRI).

The disease has not yet been fully analysed to understand the pathogen. The strain, the rate of spread and even the scope of infection in Uganda or East Africa are still unknown, Asea said.

It is thought that the leaf hopper, a tiny insect that feeds on plants, transmits the infection through its eggs.

Infected maize crops have wrinkled leaves, no cobs at all and generally stunted growth.

"The devastating nature of the dwarf maize disease is total loss of the crop yields once it attacks," said Asea.

The disease can infect 20-30 per cent of an entire maize field according to observations by specialised maize plant breeders.

"The only line of defense we have so far is to sensitise farmers on how to control spread of the disease. We shall advise them to keep uprooting and burning the infected crop," Asea said.

John Kityo a maize farmer in Namulonge, said farmers do not know what caused the disease, "but I know it is a major threat to maize production and the experts say they do not know much about it".

Maize production contributes 20–30 per cent of the GDP of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and provides 70 per cent of rural employment.

Stephen Mugo, senior scientist and maize breeder at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, said researchers need to study how the leaf hopper produces the disease in maize, as well as its biology, and start thinking of developing a host plant that is resistant. "This will be the easiest option for scientists and farmers."

But he also said there were no funds for the research and scientists trying to work on the diseases had to look for resources on their own. Governments only react when there is a crisis, he claimed.