Lumpy skin disease––yes, it’s ugly––also set Australia & Indonesia at odds for months.
KATHMANDU, Nepal––Best known as the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, circa 564 B.C., and as the land of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, Nepal during the summer of 2023 gained a more sinister distinction as ground zero for arguably the worst-ever outbreak of lumpy skin disease.
What is lumpy skin disease?
Bad news for cattle. And the cause of a now nominally resolved major diplomatic dispute between Australia and Indonesia, but the Nepalese lumpy skin disease outbreak and an outbreak perhaps as bad in Rajasthan state, India in 2022 came first.
Threat comparable to foot-and-mouth & rinderpest
Though no disease kills more cattle than slaughter for human consumption, lumpy skin disease is a threat to cattle comparable to the much more familiar foot-and-mouth disease and rinderpest.
Unknown to most Americans and Europeans, since lumpy skin disease has until now occurred only in the developing world and Israel, lumpy skin disease has in just a few months killed more than 52,250 cattle in Nepal, or about 17 times the numbers killed during the 21st century to date at the notorious Gadhi Mai sacrificial festival held every five years in Bariyarpur, Nepal.
Transmitted by biting insects
The only comparable lumpy skin disease outbreak on record was the one in Rajasthan. That outbreak may have produced somewhat more infections among cattle, but apparently a slightly lower death toll.
According to the USDA Foreign Animal Disease Preparedness & Response Plan, lumpy skin disease “is characterized by fever and the formation of nodules from one to seven centimeters in size in the skin, which eventually become necrotic.
“The skin of the muzzle, nares, back, legs, scrotum, perineum, eyelids, lower ear, nasal and oral mucosa, and tail are particularly likely to be affected,” the USDA manual says.
“Biting insects play a major role. Transmission increases in the rainy season. Morbidity can range from 3% to 85%. Mortality is usually low, although some high-mortality outbreaks have been documented.
“The disease occurs over much of sub-Saharan Africa with previous outbreaks also in Kuwait, Egypt, and Israel in the late 1980s.”
Nepal outbreak “being brought under control”
Nepalese minister of agriculture and livestock Beduram Bhusal told media on September 4, 2023 that the lumpy skin disease was “being brought under control in recent days.”
“Vaccines against the disease were brought from Jordan, Tanzania and Turkey,” Rastriya Samachar Samiti reported for the Himalayan Times.
Bhusal “further informed that over 1.3 million doses of vaccine were imported and nearly one million cattle were jabbed against the deadly disease,” Samiti wrote.
“Among over 1.5 million livestock infected by the disease in Nepal, “nearly 1.4 million have recovered,” Bhusal said, according to Samiti’s account.
“Currently, 73,636 livestock are suffering from the disease, the ministry data shows. The ministry recorded the total livestock fatalities at 52,548,” Samiti finished.
The numbers, if accurate, suggest dramatic success for the vaccination program.
Reported Arjun Poudel for the Kathmandu Post on July 24, 2023, six weeks earlier, “Lumpy skin disease has affected all of the country’s 77 districts.
“According to the latest data available with the Department of Livestock Services,” Poudel said, “48,133 cattle died and 1,054,055 have been infected by the highly contagious viral disease since its outbreak in April.”
Lumpy skin disease, Poudel explained, “is caused by a virus from the family Poxviridae. The virus mainly spreads through blood-sucking vectors—ticks, mites, and mosquitoes.”
“Numerous cows have been abandoned”
“I am a vegan animal activist running an animal sanctuary in Nepal and promoting veganism,” emailed Sneha Shrestha to ANIMALS 24-7 on August 27, 2023, reporting a much grimmer situation than either agriculture and livestock minister Bhusal, the Himalayan Times, or the Kathmandu Post.
“Numerous cows have been abandoned in the streets because of their unproductiveness,” Sneha Shrestha said. “Some suffer from various diseases, some stop providing milk, and many are male calves who instantly get abandoned to die in streets after a mother cow gives birth. So, for these cows and buffaloes, life is already miserable in the streets, and now they have to lose their life with lumpy skin disease.
“There is no one to take care of for these animals who are in the streets. We are seeking support to vaccinate these cattle to save their lives. If we will be able to vaccinate them on time, we will be able to save thousands of cows.”
Were unowned cattle vaccinated?
Unclear is whether the Nepalese government vaccination campaign included vaccinating unowned street cattle as well as those on farms––but if unowned street cattle were not vaccinated, or removed from the streets, infected cattle wandering within insect vector range of cattle on farms might keep lumpy skin disease circulating in Nepal for much longer than the Nepalese government anticipates.
Removing unowned cattle from the streets of Nepal, as in neighboring India, is often politically problematic. About 80% of the Nepalese population are Hindus, and 9% are Buddhists, many of whom regard cattle as sacred animals, not to be killed, even as euthanasia to relieve incurable suffering.
The remainder of the Nepalese population include beef-eating Muslims, Christians, and followers of a variety of regional religions.
Indonesia found infected Australian cattle
While Nepal struggled to suppress the 2023 lumpy skin disease outbreak, and India hoped to avoid a recurrence of the 2022 Rajasthan lumpy skin disease catastrophe, Indonesia reported discovering 13 newly imported Australian cattle suffering from lumpy skin disease.
At least a dozen more infected Australian cattle were found during the next several weeks.
The Indonesian government responded on July 30, 2023 by suspending cattle and buffalo imports from four Australian export yards and imposed restrictions on three others in the Northern Territory, Queensland, and Western Australia.
This effectively suspended all live cattle traffic from Australia to Indonesia, the biggest export market for Australian cattle, having bought 337,000 head in 2022 alone.
As a precautionary measure, Malaysia also suspended cattle imports from Australia.
Were cattle infected in transport?
“Indonesian officials have told media that the lumpy skin disease incubation period, which is up to 28 days, means it is possible the cattle were exposed to the disease in Australia,” the trade journal Beef Central summarized.
But the chances of the cattle having acquired lumpy skin disease in Australia appeared to be slim and none.
Not a single case has ever been reported in Australia. Australian authorities tested more than 2,000 Australian cattle after the Indonesian suspension of imports, without discovering any cases. And the infected cattle found in Indonesia came from farms that were up to 1,200 miles apart.
“Australian officials,” Beef Central said, “consider the most likely scenario is that
Australian cattle contracted the virus while sailing near Indonesia or on arrival in the country, where the infectious disease, spread by biting insects, has become widespread since being confirmed there in March 2022.
“Contaminated equipment is a known route of infection”
“Infection en route seems the most plausible explanation,” agreed Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases [ProMED] chief content officer Jarod Hanson, DVM, “which makes one wonder whether it was on the ship and/or associated equipment already, given the inherent stability of pox viruses and the fact that contaminated equipment is a known route of infection?”
The source of infection was still not identified when Indonesia and Malaysia lifted their suspensions of Australian cattle imports on September 9, 2023.
Israel first relaxed & then raised guard
Earlier, ProMED observed, “The Israeli veterinary service canceled the mandatory status of lumpy skin disease on November 11, 2022 claiming reduced risk assessment and did not reverse it back to mandatory until May 31, 2023, limited to a 9.3-mile wide zone around the Gaza strip. The reasoning was the absence of clinical lumpy skin disease since the last outbreak in Israel in May 2019.
“The current official status,” ProMED continued, “is a recommendation to vaccinate against lumpy skin disease all bovines in Israel who had been vaccinated more than six months ago.
“Those who had been vaccinated in the last six months are exempted and it is suggested to vaccinate only young unvaccinated stock.
“The mandatory lumpy skin disease vaccination status used to apply to all bovines including those in mother/calf operations and feedlots.
Common in Africa
“There are scattered reports of lumpy skin disease in the Middle East,” ProMED acknowledged, citing “Oman in 1984; Bahrain in 1993 and 2002-2003; Kuwait in 1991, and the United Arab Emirates in 2000.
“But the disease is regularly reported throughout Africa, including Egypt in 2006 and 1990; regularly from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan in 2003.
“Lumpy skin disease is also commonly reported from other parts of Africa,” ProMED said.
There is substantial commerce in cattle from India to parts of Africa and the Middle East, but few bovines move in the opposite direction, leaving how lumpy skin disease reached the largely inland desert state of Rajasthan somewhat mysterious.
Further, the shortest distance from Rajasthan to Nepal is 614 miles. Though Nepal does annually import from 700 to 1,400 cows and about 7,200 buffaloes from India, few are believed to come from as far away as Rajasthan, leaving the possibility of infected trucks used in cattle commerce with both Rajastan and Nepal as the most likely, if unconfirmed, vector of infection.