Middle East

Egypt's farmers struggle with foot-and-mouth outbreak

Cows and buffalo eat in a farm in Ezbet al-Galayla on the outskirts of Berket al-Sabaa village in the Egyptian Nile delta
Image caption The highly virulent disease is proving hard to control in Egypt

They bring in their sad cargo every morning - the latest animals to die from foot-and-mouth disease in the village of Abshwe in Egypt's Nile Delta, part of an outbreak that is ravaging farms across the country.

Some of them are carried on the back of a tractor and trailer. One dead cow was simply dragged along the main street, towed behind a tractor.

Then they are dumped in the street outside the government veterinary office.

Almost as shocking as the slumped carcasses is the lack of any visible attempt to stop the infection spreading. It is as if two centuries of knowledge on infectious diseases has simply been cast aside.

Foot-and-mouth is a sometimes fatal disease that affects cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and pigs. It cannot be cured and usually lasts for two to three weeks before the animal recovers naturally.

Ahmed Ramadan has already lost five of his cows.

"The situation is very serious," he says. "In the beginning the government supported us, but now people have run out of money. This is a very, very big problem."

Inside the veterinary office there is not much they can do except keep a tally to help farmers in their quest for compensation.

According to their detailed records, more than 3,000 animals have died in Abshwe alone.

However, the government claims just over 4,000 have died in the whole country. It appears a massive underestimate.

Image caption Abshwe's farmers are dumping their dead livestock outside the government veterinary office

Information shortage

In a farm on the outskirts of the village one cow is in deep distress, limping on its diseased rear limbs.

Not far away is an apparently healthy herd. But look closer and you see that many of the animals are also sick.

They have not been isolated from the rest of the herd. And there is no attempt to ring the village, or even the farm, with the sort of quarantine that is a routine response to this disease in Western countries.

The farmer, Abdou Abbas, says he has lost 27 cattle from his herd of 90.

It has hit milk production, and he is very worried about servicing his bank loan.

Mr Abbas is not just short of money - he seems to be desperately short of the sort of information that could help protect his herd.

"In the Nile Delta animals are raised very close together," explains consultant vet Alaa Khater. "This crowding makes it impossible to have quarantine."

Mr Khater also accepts there is a lack of information and capability to deal with foot-and-mouth disease.

'Imported' problem

But the government does not seem to agree.

The Minister of Agriculture, Mohammed Rida Ismail, was quoted by the official Mena news agency as saying that foot-and-mouth disease had been in Egypt for 100 years, and the Egyptian farmer knew how to deal with it.

Despite the lack of controls within Egypt, officials argue that the disease has been imported from abroad.

A spokesman for the veterinary authority affiliated to the agriculture ministry said the problem might have arrived in Egypt from animals smuggled across the borders from Libya or Israel.

Image caption The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned the outbreak could lead to food shortages

Already, the disease has caused a big increase in the price of meat, chicken and fish in a country in which many people are already struggling to cope.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned that it could lead to food shortages in the Middle East and North Africa.

But at least on the evidence from Abshwe, the Egyptian government is struggling to cope or even to grasp the scale of the problem.

During our day in the village, we were told the animals would be safely disposed of. So we waited to witness the process.

Finally, government workmen arrived. The dead animals left outside the veterinary office were loaded onto the back of a tractor and trailer.

Then they were simply taken and dumped, by the side of the road, beside a canal, on the outskirts of the village. A thin scraping of earth was then shoved over them.

It is no surprise that this highly virulent disease is proving so hard to control in Egypt.

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