As Lumpy Skin disease (LSD) is ripping throughout India, thousands of cows are dead. It’s hard to tell the actual number. Various media reports indicate heavy losses in the States of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh, among others. The government estimates that 100,000 heads of cattle are dead due to the disease. The Rajasthan government has written to the Central government, asking that lumpy skin disease be declared a national calamity.
The problem goes beyond the heads of cattle that have succumbed to the virus, for many more are sick and unable to provide milk while they recover.
Meanwhile, those already infected will continue to spread the disease, especially if they live in confined spaces like small courtyards or crowded cattle shelters.
The virus has made inroads into Central and South India as well. Recently, cattle in the State of Maharashtra came under attack from the virus. The Rajasthan government may be right that India is headed into a national crisis. This could undermine the milk sector and open up India’s markets to import dairy products. The outbreak could end up hampering India’s nutrition security. But, only a few know that this was a preventable tragedy.
Punaram Dewasi, a 55-year-old farmer from Padampura, Rajasthan, lost two cows to LSD. He used to sell five or six liters of milk daily, but the viral scourge has destroyed his income. He tells NewsClick, “We had no idea about this disease. During the monsoon period, we let our cattle out for grazing, which is how the infection could spread quickly. Many cows in my village are affected, and milk production and our daily earnings are gone.”
KP Singh, from the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) in Bareilly, is one of the few experts on LSD. Having first observed the disease in 2009 in Muscat, Oman, Singh understands the ongoing epidemic well. He has been studying the disease carefully since he encountered it first. “We had the first cases of LSD in 2019. They were reported in Odisha and West Bengal. Soon, cases spread to Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and other states. But no proactive steps were taken [to control the disease],” Singh explains.
Asked about the origin of this virus, Singh explains, “Worldwide, this virus was first observed in Zambia and over time, it spread across South Africa, Botswana, Kenya and was even reported in Israel. It took little time to cross over into the middle eastern countries, and finally, somehow, it reached Bangladesh. India received the virus through the illegal cattle trading along the Bangladesh border,” Singh says.
The symptoms of LSD are closely related to the biological roots of the virus. It belongs in the pox family, within the capripox sub-category, which is very similar to the goat pox virus. Cows get a high fever, and lumps appear on animals’ bodies. Cattle may also develop lesions in their lungs, stomach, kidney, liver and other internal organs. In some cases, throat lesions have also been found. “There are no permanent effects on the animal, except development of oedemas on the lymphatic nodules,” says Singh.
The infection period can last from one to two weeks when the cow suffers from fever, lesions, weight loss, appetite loss, and a fall in milk production. But the disease has no permanent effect on the mammary glands. “The mortality rate is 5% to 8%, which in mixed and foreign breeds can be around 10%,” Singh says.
Rahul Sharma, who owns and works with indigenous cows in the National Capital Region area, confirms the conditions are very much in sync with what scientists like Singh say. “In my cowshed, no cow has fallen sick with LSD. But we have heard of reports of LSD infections from the Farrukhnagar and Alwar areas. Most desi [indigenous] cows are healthy. The problem is mainly with foreign breeds and mixed breed cows,” Rahul says.
It is suspected that the disease has now come knocking at the doors of Delhi as well.
Some have wondered if LSD can spread to other species, such as wild antelopes. However, science refutes this claim. “This virus has been in India since 2019. If it could spread to wildlife, we would have had some cases reported. But we have not yet seen a single wild animal infected,” Singh says.
Nor is the virus zoonotic—it does not spread to humans from animals as the coronavirus did. “There is no question of transmission of the virus to humans or other animals. We have seen that even goats and other animals near an infected cow don’t catch the virus. Hence we recommend immediate isolation and quarantine of infected animals and ring vaccination as prevention for other cows,” KP Singh said.
Singh has just returned from Rajasthan, where, he assured, vaccination of milch animals against the virus has been successful. Vaccination helps prevent the disease, and governments are attempting to ring-fence the viral attack with booster shots to the animals. But can farmers afford to quarantine animals? And what will be the economic costs for those holding on to infected cattle?
Yudhvir Singh, general secretary, Bharatiya Kisan Union (Tikait), has been touring the country, speaking with affected farmers. He says, “A farmer can still bear crop losses, but if the milk-giving cow or buffalo gets infected, the farmer is in deep trouble. It breaks a farmer’s livelihood because they earn a daily income from selling milk. Milk is a means of survival, and the government has not been sensitive towards them and let this virus grow.”
Has government inaction contributed to the problem? Asked if the outbreak was preventable, Singh says, “Of course it was preventable. We have had the virus since 2019. If we had paid more attention, we could have saved many cows. Vaccination is very efficient in preventing the disease.” In other words, we should have used all the resources earlier to stop the outbreak.
The author is an independent analyst and writer. The views are personal