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How Veterinarians Are Helping Prevent Hunger in War-Torn South Sudan

Through their efforts to immunize livestock and introduce new, more productive breeds, veterinarians with Veterinaries Sans Frontieres Germany are working to prevent South Sudan from descending into famine. Malnutrition Deeply spoke to Silvester Okoth, the country director.

Written by Andrew Green Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A South Sudanese boy tends to his family’s livestock at a cattle camp. STEFANIE GLINSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Veterinarians are trying to stave off famine in parts of South Sudan, either through ongoing livestock vaccinations or new efforts to introduce breeds that will thrive under the harsh conditions in the war-torn country.

For South Sudanese communities that are constantly being displaced and unable to plant or harvest food, animals are often the primary source of nutrition – either as food, or to be traded for other products. But if they are not immunized, the livestock are under constant threat of falling ill and dying.

That is why veterinarians have become an integral part of the humanitarian response in the country, as aid groups attempt to address widespread malnutrition and prevent the country from tipping over into famine. Already, as many as 7.1 million people face food shortages in the country, and this year’s lean season is approaching. Malnutrition Deeply spoke to Silvester Okoth, the country director of Veterinaries Sans Frontieres Germany.

Malnutrition Deeply: What has been the impact of the ongoing conflict on livestock, and how has that affected people’s nutrition?

Silvester Okoth: In circumstances like in South Sudan, these animals are the only source of food for the population in a phase of insecurity. Yet it became evident that most of these pastoralists had lost their livestock, or they were losing their livestock, and their livelihood was getting threatened. And at the same time, they are not able to grow crops, so they must buy grain to feed their families. But this is only possible when they sell their animals.

Improving livelihoods through livestock and cropping is important because, first of all, it increases household income. And the first thing this is used for is access to medical services. So, at least any time that there’s disease in the household, this can be taken care of. And the most frequent disease is diarrhea, so we would imagine that, to an extent, malnutrition is reduced in this respect.

The second use of that income is to buy food, when food is scarce in the household. And they are able to buy a wider variety of food than without this income. So, again, we would imagine that this impacts on nutrition.

And the third priority expenditure of this income is school fees. And the poultry that is kept in the backyard by some families has been able to support up to four children in primary school.

Malnutrition Deeply: What are some of the primary veterinary challenges you’re facing at the moment?

Okoth: At the moment, the key diseases in cattle are hemorrhagic septicaemia, and then contagious plural pneumonia. In the small ruminants like sheep and goats, it’s mainly Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR), and again, contagious plural pneumonia. And then, in poultry, it’s Newcastle disease and fowl typhoid. So, you find that it’s two key vaccines all around. If we can have these vaccines available, and reaching the farmer, either presently through the humanitarian service, or later through the private practitioners, then we’ll have sorted many of the major problems among animal livestock keepers in South Sudan.

But the challenge is access: The road network has been deteriorating because of the conflict, so we have to use aircraft for travel. This still leaves us hours from the field, and in the middle of a war, planes are normally reserved for priority life-saving commodities, not animal vaccines.

Three out of every four vaccine transport trips typically fail. But that fourth time, we manage to line up the animal health workers, refrigerate the vaccines and get on the plane. On the ground is where the hard work starts: From the fridge to the cattle in the fields, animal health teams carry the cold boxes on their shoulders, sometimes for up to seven hours. And we must keep a close eye on the cold box throughout. If the temperature rises, the vaccine is destroyed and our hard work is lost.

Malnutrition Deeply: Given the ongoing conflict, what services are you able to provide?

Okoth: Real improvements are only possible when you have relative peace for a long period of time to allow us to introduce better breeds and production methods. Otherwise, the best we can do is to vaccinate cows, sheep and chickens against key and endemic diseases, to safeguard them for food or for sale.

Fortunately, and interestingly, war never curtails the livestock market completely, and people are fighting, but livestock are being sold through their normal supply chain. So, those are the challenges.

Malnutrition Deeply: Are there any innovations you’ve been able to introduce?

Okoth: Yes, where there has been relative stability, we have been able to work with farmers to introduce improved breeds of chicken, which lay up to four times as many eggs.

Typically, the breeds are quite small and breeding is very slow. But this new breed lays more eggs, and produces faster – by up to as much as 200 percent – which helps service the growing demand for poultry meat and eggs. There was a ready market, good money and the demand was high, but there was no local supply. Poultry meat was coming from Brazil.

So, we introduced this new breed, and it’s picking up. Those who have adopted the breed are doing very well. The cocks sell about three times the local one. The hens lay up to four times the number of eggs, and we have also introduced vaccination and treatment, which helps reduce the mortality down from as high as 80 percent.

Malnutrition Deeply: Veterinarians are not traditionally thought of as part of a humanitarian response. Can you talk about why they are critical to addressing issues like malnutrition?

Okoth: Drought and consecutive periods of war eroded animal health services in South Sudan throughout the 1990s. As well as drought and conflict, the cattle disease called rinderpest was a major killer in this area. So, it was decided that animal health should be part of the humanitarian response, and this fell under UNICEF, mainly because cow’s milk was key in achieving the objectives to control the famine, especially for children.

A new service was formed by a consortium of UNICEF, World Food Program and the humanitarian wing of the movement. This was called Operation Lifeline Sudan. VSF Germany came to South Sudan in 1998. What we do is to try to protect these animals as much as possible, to sustain their health, so that they are able to produce milk, and also so that they can fetch good prices.

In a humanitarian situation, you find that much more of the resources go to ready food, like cereals, pulses, oil and salt; then, into health, and maybe shelter. So, we have a sector, which is resource slim, and we have to do our best with these limited resources. We cannot talk about good veterinary governance because the systems have been eroded. They are not there. They don’t have resources. So it’s mainly the humanitarian sector.

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