MakanDay has identified a troubling trend in Chief Mweemba’s chiefdom, surrounded by Lake Kariba, where locals are consuming hippo carcasses that wash ashore. This practice is exacerbating the threat of anthrax in the region.
The current anthrax crisis in the area started in July of this year, when a group of farmers made an unexpected discovery on the shores of Lake Kariba—a dead hippo. Initially perceived as a stroke of luck, this finding swiftly transformed into the current anthrax crisis plaguing the district.
The sinister disease, swiftly transmitted from the deceased hippo to both humans and livestock, is unleashing devastating consequences upon an already impoverished community in Chief Mweemba’s Dengeza area.
Anthrax Update from the Health Minister
On November 10, 2023, Minister of Health Sylvia Masebo delivered a concerning update to the National Assembly, asserting that anthrax poses a "significant public health security threat to Zambia and the sub-region as well".
Masebo highlighted the widespread impact of the disease across three provinces—Eastern, Southern, and Western—emphasising that anthrax is a formidable infectious disease caused by a specific form of bacteria, affecting both humans and animals.
“When anthrax gets inside the body and is activated, it can multiply, spread out in the body, produce toxins, and cause severe illness,” she disclosed.
“The symptoms of anthrax depend on the type of infection and can take anywhere from one day to more than two months to appear. All types of anthrax have the potential, if untreated, to spread throughout the body and cause severe illness and even death.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), anthrax is a serious infectious disease caused by gram-positive, rod-shaped bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis.
It occurs naturally in soil and commonly affects domestic and wild animals around the world. People can get sick with anthrax if they come in contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products. It can cause severe illness in both humans and animals.
The disease can present itself in four forms in humans, namely, Cutaneous anthrax affecting the skin, Inhalation affecting the lungs, intestinal anthrax affecting the stomach, and Meningo affecting the brain.
A Community's Struggle Against an Unexpected Anthrax Outbreak
According to Dr. Paul Fandamo, the Acting Director for Veterinary Services in the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries, anthrax is endemic in Western and Eastern provinces.
However, this year, Sinazongwe reported its first cases in July, rapidly escalating into the epicentre of the disease, with two human deaths and over 400 livestock deaths recorded.
While surveying the grazing area in Mweemba chiefdom, MakanDay discovered a lifeless cow with blood stains discharging from its nostrils, visibly bloated. Approximately 200 metres away, seemingly healthy cattle grazed, potentially coming into contact with the carcass and facing a heightened risk of infection.
Regrettably, local efforts to ensure that healthy animals avoid contact with infected carcasses have been minimal, posing a significant challenge in preventing the disease's spread.
Challenges Persist Despite Butchery Closures in Anthrax-Stricken Area
The closure of butcheries across the area and the entire district, coupled with the ban placed on meat sales in shops and bars, has not deterred residents from consuming meat, even those exhibiting symptoms of anthrax.
Residents attribute this peculiar behaviour to the pressing issue of hunger.
Kingbo Siyakayuwa, a 41-year-old livestock farmer and fisherman from Ngoma fishing camp in Muchekwa ward, Mweemba chiefdom, has experienced significant losses due to anthrax.
Siyakayuwa shared with MakanDay that, unaware of the cause of his goat's death, he offered the meat to his worker, who later contracted the disease.
"I had seven cattle and three goats when I started livestock farming in 2018. Since the Anthrax outbreak, I have lost three of my animals. Now, I rely on fishing for survival. Unfortunately, heavy currents on the lake currently prevent me from fishing or selling my animals to provide for my wife and six children," Siyakayuwa lamented.
Tragedy Strikes as Anthrax Claims a Life in Close Proximity
Not far from Siyakayuwa’s farm, a family is still in mourning after losing their relative to anthrax.
On October 16, 2023, 53-year-old Andrew Syamegwa, a livestock farmer from Ngoma fishing camp, succumbed to suspected anthrax.
This tragedy unfolded days after he accidentally exposed himself to anthrax-contaminated blood from his four heads of cattle that had died on their own.
Getrude Syamegwa, the wife of the deceased, recounted that her husband inadvertently cut himself with a knife while dressing the animals, causing his blood to mix with that of the infected livestock.
“Two days after slaughtering the animals, my husband developed a small sore on his finger, which later affected his whole left hand. He complained of chest pains and experienced difficulty in defecating.”
Syamegwa further elaborated that her husband received six drips of water but continued to discharge blood from the anus. Unfortunately, he was pronounced dead a few hours after being admitted to Maamba Hospital.
Syamegwa, who, according to his wife, had no prior history of health complications, left behind six children, the youngest being 13 years old. However, before his death, he sold the infected animals when the meat dried.
Remarkably, his family has managed to avoid contracting the anthrax disease, except for his half-brother, who earlier fell ill after consuming meat from an infected animal.
MakanDay also met Penzya Gamela, a deaf fisherman, silently enduring immense pain. Diagnosed with “cutaneous human anthrax”, he exhibited a scarred thumb.
Gamela, conveying his struggles through sign language interpreted by his half-brother, shared that he faces challenges when he goes to the toilet, and despite seeking healthcare services at a nearby Sikaneka clinic, a local health centre, his condition is deteriorating.
Having ceased consuming meat, Gamela has returned to his fishing business while enduring the pain.
Unfortunately, the lack of improvement in health conditions has led many locals to avoid clinics, opting instead for traditional treatments. These include using salt diluted in diesel and cold water to apply on the sores as they manage their anthrax.
Anthrax Tightens Grip on Southern Province
Despite efforts by the district health office, the surge in human anthrax cases persists, largely attributed to locals persisting in meat consumption even after treatment.
The district has recorded two associated anthrax-related deaths, prompting the dispatch of samples from both cases to Lusaka for further testing.
The toll stands at over 200 recorded human anthrax cases in the district, with over 80 individuals discharged. Presently, three individuals remain admitted, while more than 150 are under community management—a stark indication of the intensifying public health crisis.
The Silent Threat
Residents of Sinazongwe district, known for their prowess in livestock farming, supply animals to various destinations, including Lusaka, the Kasumbalesa border post, Zambeef, and local butcheries. However, erratic crop farming prevails due to the district's susceptibility to drought.
MakanDay's investigation uncovered that livestock vaccinations, initiated in early October, took a dire turn as animals began succumbing to the disease rapidly, with around ten deaths reported each day.
But Joshua Njolomba, Sinazongwe District fisheries and livestock coordinator, emphasised that not all animals were vaccinated, disputing claims of deaths post-vaccination.
Farmers, unwilling to accept livestock losses, are reportedly collaborating with traders to transport anthrax-contaminated meat to other districts, risking the spread of the disease to new areas.
Trucks are allegedly being used to smuggle the meat carcasses, masquerading as fish transporters.
Despite efforts to vaccinate more than 88,800 animals against anthrax, the veterinary department faces challenges as some farmers refuse to have their animals vaccinated.
The veterinary department collaborates with the district health office and the local authority to enforce a ban on the movement, slaughtering, and selling of meat carcasses.
Non-compliance has resulted in actions such as the seizure and incineration of 70 kilograms of meat products from a local butchery.
Recently, the local authorities took action by confiscating and burning 70 kilogrammes of meat products from 'Local is Laka Butchery,' owned by Sinazongwe ward councilor Gift Siasiya, due to non-compliance with the ban.
The lapses in controlling the movement of beef have led to the emergence of anthrax in Livingstone and Kazungula. Currently, 17 individuals, including the youngest being a one-year-old toddler, are admitted in these affected areas.
Kazungula has also witnessed 170 animal deaths, as reported by District Fisheries and Livestock Director Webby Chibomba.
During a visit by Southern Province Minister Credo Nanjuwa on November 3 to assess the anthrax situation, Dr. Chibomba conveyed the challenges faced in combating anthrax.
He highlighted the significant hindrance posed by the slow response from various ministries responsible for coordinating efforts against the disease.
Dr. Chibomba emphasised that this delay was primarily due to anthrax not being classified as a disease of economic importance.
“We appeal to the government for the donation of relief food to alleviate the hunger crisis in both the chiefdom and the entire district. All nine wards in the chiefdom—Mamba, Muchekwa, Siameja, Namazambwe, Tekelo, Mweemba, Mweenda, Muuka, and Mbinga—have been significantly impacted by the anthrax disease," appealed Chief Mweemba through his representative, Benny Siamudansi.
Womba Kasela, a journalist based in Choma town, Southern Province, is a frequent contributor to MakanDay