We are the world’s largest milk producer as of now.
And hence, it is all the more important that we take care of our cattle, or else we could be staring at a health crisis.
I am no doctor, veterinarian, activist or dairy specialist, yet something prompted me to research and write about this topic. I have, however, been following the plight of bovines across the country and have been visiting places where they are kept, whether in cities, villages or households.
The fundamental premise of writing this article is to not only highlight the significant importance of bovines to the Indian economy but the need for taking care of this important asset the has a bearing on several livelihoods but also on the health of the country.
Bovine animals form an important pillar of India’s rural economy by not only contributing to regular monthly farm income but by also forming an important collateral for raising capital or being an asset during financial emergencies.
India also ranks first globally in milk production with 20 per cent of world production (176 million tonnes in 2018).
While India is still undertaking its delayed livestock census, as per 2012 numbers, we had approximately 51.2 crore livestock, of which cattle including buffaloes constitute 30 crore.
There are more than 28 crore households that are engaged in livestock farming. A large number of our bovines suffer painful health problems, shorter life leading to poor productivity and a possible infection to the food chain they contribute to.
While malnutrition continues to be a major health concern in our country with a large number of under-5 being either underweight, stunted or wasted (low weight), milk continues to be a major source of nutrition providing calcium, potassium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, phosphorous etc.
Hence, this fundamental source of nutrition needs to be extracted in a hygienic environment, where, apart from cleanliness of surroundings, the health of the cattle must also be maintained and monitored.
Due to inadequate hygiene, raw milk runs the risk of carrying bacteria which cause milk-borne diseases such as tuberculosis or even typhoid.
Another trigger that prompted me to research more on this was a chance reading of a book by James Herriot, written in the 70s.
It gave me insight into how much health and hygiene form an integral part of dairy farming and cattle. I heard the existence of a concept called bovine TB or bTB.
Yes, that’s Tuberculosis...a term that I'm sure all of us, as common folks, would be well aware of. It's the same potentially serious, infectious bacterial disease that mainly affects the lungs in humans.
Basically, an airborne disease, the bacteria that cause TB, are spread from one person to another through tiny droplets released into the air via coughs and sneezes. The bacteria may be present in one's body in the latent form with no symptoms or the active form that makes one sick.
So, this brings us to the question of where this bacteria comes from?
TB in humans is primarily caused by the germ Mycobacterium tuberculosis. But there is another bacteria, the Mycobacterium bovis that is also part of the tuberculosis family, which can cause TB in humans.
bTB is a disease that can spread to humans through aerosols produced by diseased farm animals or by ingestion of raw unpasteurized milk and other dairy products.
A disease common in the less developed and developing world, bovine tuberculosis can not only bring economic losses to cattle and farm animals but also potentially represents a significant zoonosis.
In developed countries, the introduction of pasteurization, preventing contamination from milk of infected cows, and eradication programmes for infected herds, have considerably reduced the prevalence of human disease due to the bovine TB bacillus.
An essential aspect of proper treatment to a TB patient is the distinction of M. bovis from M. tuberculosis.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) report released on 17 October 2019, India accounted for 27 per cent of the world total followed by China 9 per cent, Indonesia 8 per cent, Philippines 6 per cent, Pakistan 6 per cent, Nigeria 4 per cent, Bangladesh 4 per cent and South Africa 3 per cent. The report notes that in 2018, India had 26.9 lakh TB patients.
The India TB-Report 2019 indicates that India is close to covering most of the TB patients through NIKSHAY. India records 220,000 human deaths each year due to TB.
The National Strategic Plan (NSP) 2017-2025 by the Government of India (GoI) sets out what the government believes is needed to eliminate TB in India and describes the activities and interventions that the government believes will bring about significant change in the incidence, prevalence and mortality from TB.
India being the largest milk producer of the world, is also at an increased vulnerability to cattle infections and zoonosis. Efforts need to be taken to prevent and control bTB.
We need to have a standard of quality control in dairy farming, apart from an organised system of farm inspection and screening of cattle on regular basis to reduce the risk of bTB.
Farmers need to be taught the importance of constant monitoring, screening and isolating the infected animal from the herd and guided through treatment programmes.
The National Livestock Mission of the Centre seeks to bring in qualitative and quantitative improvement in livestock production systems, and it is critical that this is used to also address health, hygiene and constant screening and monitoring issues.
While TB is well known now, bTB is not and lack of knowledge, awareness on bTB and the risk involved results in farmers consulting the veterinarian only as a last resort after different home remedies fail.
The government has in its agenda eradication of TB and since this other form of TB has an equally devastating potential, it is important to bring policies to educate and address this problem at its source.
India needs to distinguish between Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Mycobacterium bovis. To completely eradicate human tuberculosis, a parallel effort needs to be put in to control bTB in cattle population.
Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is a chronic disease of cattle that impacts cattle and runs the risk of triggering a major public health threat.
Despite the considerable economic costs and zoonotic risk consequences associated with the disease, due to lack of awareness, national control programmes have not considered bTB as an issue.
Countries such as the US, Australia, and European nations have strict and defined systems in place to monitor animals affected by TB.
If the inspector finds any signs or symptoms of disease in case of dead cattle, the carcass is condemned and ensured that it does not enter the food chain.
Threats to human health occur through drinking unpasteurized milk or close contact with TB-infected animals who are coughing, sneezing, or vocalizing, and hence such exposures are prohibited.
It is time for India to take on TB on a war footing, but in the process use this challenge to drive hygiene, cleanliness, education, diagnosis and treatment of this important yet unacknowledged issue of bTB in collaboration with the estimated 28 crore-plus households and farmers of India who manage and earn through livestock farming.
A control strategy that combines educating cattle farmers with the ability to detect, diagnose and reach out for treatment will work better.
This may require various ministries and states to work together but yes, the time has come for India to take care of its bovines and well-being of the population as we can cannot leave things to chance.
In short, our Bovines are equally entitled to Swachh Bharat.