In-depth: Food and nutrition crisis in Niger and the Western Sahel

MALI: Doctors and vets work together in north

Some 40 percent of pastoralists' cattle in northern Mali have died this year (file photo)
BAMAKO, 22 September 2010 (IRIN) - Rains have improved pasture in parts of northern Mali, bettering many animals’ survival prospects, but with rain comes the risk of illnesses for animals weakened by months of malnutrition, making this a critical time for veterinary care, say aid agencies.

Some 40 percent of cattle, sheep and goats in northern Mali have died as a result of drought this year, the US Agency for International Development’s FEWS NET estimates - in a region where 80 percent of the inhabitants rely on stockbreeding and agriculture.

When NGO Agronomes et Vétérinaires sans Frontières (AVSF) asked locals in the northern region of Timbuktu what kind of health interventions they needed, most said they wanted care for both themselves and their animals, “so we decided to take a holistic approach and treat them both together,” AVSF head in Mali Marc Chapon told IRIN.

NGOs AVSF and Médecins du Monde (MDM) have each set up mobile health teams made up of a nurse, a state vaccinator, a veterinarian, and a community representative, to go to pastoralists’ settlements in the Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao regions of northern Mali to vaccinate people, treat illnesses, give pregnant women prenatal checkups and nutritional advice; and to de-worm and inoculate animals against common diseases.

A combined approach makes sense in these types of crises, said the Food and Agriculture Organization’s chief veterinary officer, Juan Lubroth, as it gives more flexibility and is often prioritized by nomads. “If you keep people alive and their animals die… then what will they live off?” he told IRIN.

Sickness risks

The change of diet from the dry to the wet season can bring on new sicknesses and diseases, according to deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Niger and Mali, Christian Wabnitz, “but if we get through the transition phase, their health improves.”

Some of the illnesses threatening animals in droughts include trypanosomiasis spread by the tsetse fly; foot and mouth disease; contagious bovine or caprine pleuro pneumonia; and PPR, known as “peste des petits ruminants”, says Lubroth. Given a weak herd, the illnesses of one animal can infect all, he said.

Weak animals are also more likely to be washed away by heavy rains: in Ber, a village in Timbuktu, 1,200 livestock drowned in July when two years’ worth of rain fell on two separate days.

“We need to make sure animals are healthy now as the rain improves pasture,” AVSF’s Chapon told IRIN, “because if they are carrying parasites, when they start to eat again, they end up feeding the parasites, not themselves.”

Among humans, pregnant women and malnourished children are most in need of healthcare interventions, said MDM’s project manager Sidy Diallo. Animal milk makes up the bulk of pastoralist children’s diets, according to Tufts University researchers, causing malnutrition when the supply dwindles.

But Lubroth points out that a holistic care package is needed to maintain both animal and human health. “Animals require water, shelter and decent food in order to recover from illness… No vaccinations will be as effective in malnourished animals without these.”

Logistics

The project is expensive to run as the teams cover vast, sparsely populated areas. Many nomads settle in temporary camps, between 50km and 150km away from the nearest health clinic. AVSF, working with local NGO, Association for Sahelian Development (ADESAH), targets just 2,500 people across 40,000sqkm in Timbuktu region - an area the size of Switzerland. “This is not health care for the masses,” said Diallo. “We don’t treat several hundred people a day.”

AVSF’s one health team in Timbuktu, and MDM’s six in Gao and four in Kidal, are not enough to cover the regions’ needs, said project managers. The European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO) currently supports both NGOs and may continue to do so over the longer-term, but prefers that treatment for all be free. At the moment, patients in Timbuktu pay for care for themselves and their animals. Antibiotics for a camel will cost a herder US$1.50; and an antibiotic vaccination for an animal costs 20 US cents, according to AVSF; with free, state-covered treatment for mandatory vaccines, pregnant women and young children only.

To keep the project going over the long term, NGOs say the state will need to step in. The Mali Ministry of Health has expressed interest but has not yet outlined any firm plans.

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Links & Resources

ReliefWeb
Permanent Interstate Committee for drought control in the Sahel (CILSS, in French)
The Secretary-General's High-Level Task Force
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