Vet on call: Easiest way to curb anthrax

Friday May 26 2017
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Mwacharo Kubo on his farm in Taveta where he has more than 50 cows. Vaccination is key in preventing anthrax in your livestock. PHOTO | LUDOVICH MBHOGOLI | NATION MEDIA GROUP


I always remember words from my professor, who lectured us on diseases caused by bacteria, at the university almost half-a-century ago.

“You must never forget this disease because it can kill you and many others in 24 hours.”

His warning sent a chill down the spine of every student. To date, when I get a call of sudden death in a food animal, the professor’s voice rings in my mind before I set off to respond.

The good professor was talking about anthrax, whose outbreak has become too common nowadays.

The disease outbreaks are high-profile and high-impact because animals die suddenly, usually in increasing numbers.

The deaths are soon followed by human cases of sudden illness with severe abdominal and chest pains, headaches, diarrhoea, vomiting and deaths.


Most human patients will say they had eaten meat from dead animals or animals that were slaughtered when sickly.

Animals infected with anthrax will normally die suddenly without showing any signs to the untrained eye.

They, therefore, die in very good body condition, tempting people to eat the carcass.

However, if people were knowledgeable and keen, they would notice the anthrax carcass bloats rapidly and dark oily blood oozes from the body openings, including the eyes, mouth, nose, anus and vulva.

Never open the carcass of a dead animal or slaughter and eat sickly animals.

Second, never eat meat that has not been inspected by a qualified inspector and third, always report cases of sick and dead animals to your animal health service provider.

The most recent case of anthrax outbreak was at a slaughterhouse in Thika last week. It resulted in closure of the abattoir and eight people were hospitalised with the more subtle skin form of anthrax, medically called cutaneous anthrax.


A number of people called me on phone with the common question, “Why does anthrax appear so difficult to control in Kenya?”

Anthrax is caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. It affects livestock, wild animals and humans. Birds are known to be immune to anthrax infection.

The anthrax bacterium is a versatile organism that is able to live as a single-celled unit that is highly infectious to man and livestock.

It can survive in the soil for decades in form of spores, ready to infect an animal or human being at the earliest opportunity.

Livestock are infected when they breathe in, consume or come into contact with spores in the soil, pastures or carcasses of infected animals.

Once the spores get into the body, they germinate into the infective single-celled bacterium that multiplies inside the body tissues including blood.

The bacteria produce a very potent toxin that is circulated to the whole body through the blood.

It is the anthrax toxin that causes sudden death of infected animals and the bleeding that is seen when the animal is close to death or already dead.

Prior to death of infected animals, the anthrax toxin causes massive internal bleeding and prevents clotting of blood.

After an infected animal dies, the anthrax bacteria form the highly resistant spores when they are exposed to air. If such a carcass is opened fully, there is a massive contamination of the anthrax spores in the area and air around the carcass.


New infections quickly occur when people or animals breathe in the spores. The soil in the area remains contaminated for many years.

Some of the spores are distributed widely by water runoff, wind and other animals.

The disease occurs in three main forms. First is the intestinal form, which is the most common in people and it occurs when contaminated meat is consumed.

It causes mainly diarrhoea, fever, headache and vomiting. Second is the pulmonary form, which is the deadliest and occurs when people inhale the anthrax spores especially when opening a carcass or in anthrax dissemination by terrorists.

It causes shortness of breath and severe chest pains as well as fever and kills up to 80 per cent of those infected even with treatment.

Cutaneous or skin anthrax is the mildest form. It causes painless spreading ulcers on the skin. Left untreated, it may cause death once the anthrax bacteria multiplies and produces sufficient toxin to spread to the whole body.

Cutaneous anthrax occurs mainly in people who come into skin contact with anthrax spores such as handlers of raw animal products like meat, milk, manure, wool and hides.

The disease was initially called the “wool sorter’s disease” before the bacteria was identified. It was most common in wool workers.


I have baptised anthrax “The weak giant” because as deadly as the bacterium is, it is easily treated with antibiotics once detected early enough in both humans and animals.

Humans are not routinely vaccinated against anthrax. Only people at risk of anthrax exposure such as raw animal products handlers and military personnel should be vaccinated.

The anthrax vaccine in animals is one of the oldest bacterial vaccines in medical history. It was developed by the Father of Vaccines, Louis Pasteur, in 1881.

To prevent anthrax in livestock, we should vaccinate the animals once every year with the current anthrax vaccine. The vaccine takes 14 days to provide protective immunity.

If an infected herd is vaccinated, deaths start declining by the sixth day from the start of vaccination. So why is this old disease, whose prevention and treatment we know very well, still causing such great misery to Kenyans?

The answer lies in the obvious. We are simply not vaccinating our animals against the disease. We just rush when there is an outbreak.

We should commit to put anthrax in the history books by vaccinating our animals once every year.


The Clinic
John Njoroge: Right now i have a flock of five-month old layers. When should i start feeding them on layers mash?
Your layers are already 20 weeks. They should have started on layers mash at about 16 weeks. Introduce the layers mash gradually over a week and put the birds on multivitamins to reduce stress. Your birds should also have had their beaks trimmed at 10 days and 8 to 10 weeks of age.

Wahome: I would like to keep dairy and beef cows. Please advise on the best breeds.
With good fodder and water supply, Friesian would be your best dairy breed because it is a high milk producer and has good market demand. But it is not a good idea to mix dairy and beef as a beginner.