Prosper Kabambi, head of the animal health department at the ministry, told IRIN that there needs to be more control of animal movements; he said goats and sheep were still transiting through Kikwit, the capital of Bandundu Province, where the outbreak is centred, without being checked for the disease.
"The mayor of Kikwit ordered a ban on uncontrolled entry and exit, but it's hard to say this is strictly applied," he said. "People give a bit of money to the police and their animals are allowed to pass."
Kikwit is a regional hub; it is on the main road from the capital, Kinshasa, to the northern province of Equateur and the western Kasai provinces.
In June, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said this PPR outbreak was “the worst livestock epidemic in the country in more than 10 years”, and warned that, left unchecked, it could cross over into southern African countries that have never been affected.
Kabambi said that a plan for mass vaccination of goats is now being urgently revised. FAO has agreed to fund free vaccinations for a half a million goats at a cost of US$500,000. The mass vaccination was to have started on 11 August but has been postponed while more up-to-date information is collected on the extent of the outbreak.
"The initial idea was to vaccinate goats in a sanitary cordon around the contaminated area, but the disease has now spread to so many places that we are planning to target certain areas instead of a cordon."
Millions at risk
The epidemic was declared in May, but the virulence of the outbreak was already evident in 2011. "People have been talking about the disease since December, but for months the government did nothing," said Didier Mboma, a journalist based in Kikwit.
Official figures suggest that 24,000 goats had died of the disease in the territory of Masi-Manimba - one of nine territories in Bandundu Province - in the six months leading up to February. Since then, the death toll among goats has been revised upwards to more than 100,000. Sheep, which are not numerous in Bandundu, have also been dying.
The government has said that a million goats are at risk, but that figure could be an underestimate. "We thought there were only 560,000 goats in Masi-Manimba, but our latest information suggests there were more than a million," said Kabambi. "Farmers tend to underreport their animals to avoid tax."
In the past month, some Congolese sources, including Roger Penekoko, a provincial official, and Leopold Mulumba, head of the veterinary laboratory in Kinshasa, have said the disease is stabilizing in Masi-Manimba. Kabambi said this meant the disease had peaked in the territory, but it would continue to kill goats, particularly newborns, which have no immunity.
Masi-Manimba is one of 191 territories in the DRC; Xavier Farhey, a spokesman for FAO, said a number of other territories had higher goat populations than Masi-Manimba.
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Vaccinations will cost about $0.50 for the vaccine plus the cost of the cold chain - the refrigeration system required to keep vaccines potent - transport and personnel. Persuading owners to group their flocks together for vaccination will be key to reducing the cost of the campaign.
In July, the Kinshasa veterinary laboratory began producing viral vaccines for the first time in more than two decades, and will be able to produce them at lower cost than imported vaccines, Mulumba said.
But he said the laboratory had not been given the reagent to produce a vaccine against PPR, so for the time being it will concentrate on producing vaccines against Newcastle disease, which affects poultry, and rabies.
Impact on livelihoods
PPR is not transmissible to humans, but its economic consequences could be severe.
"In this country, we say goats are the poor man's cows," said Lemba Mabela, head of animal husbandry at the Ministry of Agriculture. "Every financial problem the poor have is settled with goats."
A recent emergency mission by the Crisis Management Centre - Animal Health, jointly operated by FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), reported that current PPR outbreaks are particularly lethal, with an 86 percent mortality rate in goats.
The government and FAO have discussed the possibility of slaughtering goats as a control measure. Asked if the government was going to organize a slaughter, the agriculture minister Jean Chrysostome Vahamwiti told IRIN, "We haven't decided explicitly because that would require compensating the owners, and parliament has just reduced the government's budget."
Kabambi said a slaughter might still be the best option: "A recent outbreak in Morocco was quelled after the army surrounded the contaminated area and all the goats inside it were killed. But the contaminated area was probably smaller than what we have here."
Animals that have died of the disease are still safe for human consumption, according to Kabambi and Mulumba. Kabambi said that if there were more cold storage facilities in Bandundu, or if trucks with freezer units could be made available, so that the meat could be preserved, the cost of compensating farmers for a slaughter would be lower. Goat meat can also be smoked or cured using traditional methods, but this sharply reduces its value.
PPR was first confirmed in DRC in 2008, though it had long been suspected. Outbreaks have also occurred in Kenya, Morocco, Tanzania and Uganda in the past five years.