THE VET'S NOTEBOOK: Understanding January Disease


As a result of recurring bouts of hyperinflation, we have seen more and more people investing money into cattle, tethering their wealth to these beasts as one does a plough. 

Livestock is seen as a safer investment vehicle than the hedge funds and 401ks that most in the Global North depend on to keep their money safe. 

You can't deny it, Zimbabwe is and has always been a cattle country. 

While for many farmers, choosing to invest in cattle has brought them nothing but success, some rue the day they made the move. 

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Cattle Theileriosis, also known as January Disease has ravaged herds countrywide. In the last few years, more than half a million Zimbabwean cattle have succumbed to the tickborne disease.

January Disease — The bane of every Zimbabwean cattle farmer

Substantial losses have been sustained by cattle farmers nationwide as result of tickborne diseases, with one particular disease wreaking the most havoc — January Disease.

For the laymen, we're not talking about the January struggles brought about by poor financial decisions made during the festive season. 

Impacts of this disease have been so severe that some have referred to it as “cattle COVID” (which kind of makes sense but is wildly inaccurate). 

In the last few years, more than half a million Zimbabwean cattle (valued at approximately US$150 million) have died from January Disease, and more are still dying. 

January Disease (also known as Cattle Theileriosis or JD) is a deadly disease of cattle that is caused by the protozoa cattle-derived Theileria parva, which is transmitted by brown ear ticks. 

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The parasite that causes January Disease is transmitted through ticks. So deal with ticks, prevent January Disease. But it's not that simple

The clinical signs of this disease include fever, enlargement of lymph nodes, cloudy and teary eyes and acute death. The economic impacts of this disease are not only seen in the death of cattle, but also in the costs of control and treatment, as well as in export restrictions. 

Historically, spikes in cases of this disease were usually seen in January, coinciding with increased tick activity during the rainy season, thus the name “January Disease”.

This isn’t necessarily true anymore; outbreaks can occur and have been occurring throughout the year in different parts of the country for years now, with little discrimination between A1, A2 and communal farmers. 

Ways To Prevent January Disease

Like any other disease out there, prevention is better than cure, and for JD, dipping is at the core of prevention. By targeting ticks that feed on the cow, the transmission of the disease is disrupted. 

Now obviously the question is ‘how has this disease gotten so out of hand if the control is apparently straightforward?’ 

The answer is ‘it is never straightforward’, and depending on who you ask, there will be talks of the protozoa mutating, ticks resisting dips, unavailability of dip chemicals, shortage of foreign currency to acquire the chemicals, improper dipping procedures, someone not adhering to a strict dipping program, someone being behind on their dipping levies; the list is endless. 

So maybe we should concern ourselves more with what we can do, and the first thing to note is that JD is a notifiable disease, which means that the farmer is obligated by law to notify the Department of Veterinary Services whenever they suspect JD. 

Farmers should discuss with their veterinarian on (strict) dipping programs to adhere to, the dipping chemicals to use, and other complementary practices such as the use of tick grease. 

Farmers should also supervise the dipping process; making sure that no animal has evaded the dip, that the animals are being fully immersed in the dip, that all the nozzles are working properly if they’re using a spray race, and that the dip chemical is being replenished properly. 

They should also discuss with their veterinarian about treatment options available in cases where the disease has already ensued. As a farmer you learn quick; you don’t get anything that you don’t work hard for. 

In addition, vaccination is another effective method of control and the good news is that the Department of Veterinary Services is already rolling out a vaccine that is protective against JD. 

All of this to say, it’ll take a collaborative effort but the goal is certainly attainable. 

* Dr Shaine Macheche holds a Bachelor's Degree in Veterinary Science from the University of Zimbabwe, and is a licensed veterinarian. He writes in his own personal capacity. 

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