Ever since I came back from vet school, I have been trying to comprehend why Botulism disease (Lame Sickness or “Lam Siekte”) is called “omutjise wombindu” in Otjiherero, which relatively refers to blood disease.
Some villagers even mistakenly vaccinate with Pulpy Kidney (Bloednier; a disease that occurs in goats rather than in cattle) vaccine because bloed nier translated from Afrikaans is ‘bloody kidney’.
Some farmers call me, complaining that they have encountered this disease in their cattle and I am always puzzled. But the more I ask for details of the symptoms, the more I realise that they actually mean Botulism. Imagine that a misnaming of diseases can cause such confusion and mismanagement of animal health.
We are still continuing with our discussion of the important diseases on the yearly vaccination calendar. This time, Botulism is under discussion with emphasis on clinical symptoms and prevention.
Botulism is a non-contagious (doesn’t spread from animal to animal) disease that affects wild animals, livestock and even birds. It is more common in cattle than goats and sheep and is generally characterised by lameness and progressive paralysis (that’s why Lam Siekte as in Afrikaans is more an appropriate name and it is more suitable in Otjiherero to refer to it as “omutjise wokuremana poo wokuwotama”).
It is caused by a bacteria called Clostridium botulinum (hence, the official name of Botulism). This bacterium produces spores that can persist on pastures and can produce toxins in decomposing materials such as rotten carcasses. If cattle happen to eat these carcasses or bones, they are likely to pick up the toxins, which leads to clinical signs of the disease. Once it is absorbed, the toxin travels via the bloodstream to the nerve endings and blocks the transmission of nerve impulses to muscles resulting in paralysis.
Outbreaks of Botulism in cattle occur mostly when they have phosphorus deficiency and compensate by eating bones. (This takes me back to my childhood in the village when my grandfather used to insist that we collect any bones lying around ‘cause they would be eaten by cattle. And in those days, selling bones was also an income earner). Some cases are due to contamination of the feeds or water by rotting bodies of small animals such as lizards, snakes, turtles or mice that are inadvertently trapped in grains, hay or silages during the harvesting or storage stage.
Two to 10 days after the ingestion of the toxins, farmers will notice that the affected animal has difficulty in chewing and swallowing due to the paralysis of the tongue and jaw muscles. Hence, the food will just be hanging in the mouth and a lot of saliva discharge will be noticed. If you try to lift up the tail, there won’t be any resistance since the muscles have become paralysed as well. The animal will also have difficulty in passing urine and feces.
After a few more days, the animal will exhibit in unco-ordinated movements (staggering more like someone who is drunk from consumming a lot of “tombo”). The poor animal will then be paralysed, starting with the hind limbs. You will notice the affected animal trying to stand up but will only manage to lift up the chest and forelimbs. Frequently, they extend their hind legs behind them in a frog-legged position to make breathing easier. The paralysis will then progress to the forelimbs and the animal won’t be able to stand up or lift its head at all. Eventually, death will occur because the muscles responsible for breathing will become paralysed too.
There is no effective treatment for Botulism. Farmers try giving water and feeding sick animals with a pipe or stomach tube and inject antibiotics but these hardly work. Once animals are unable to stand, they are unlikely to recover and may need to be killed.
The only way to prevent this disease is by annual vaccination. Once an outbreak has started, vaccination is unlikely to make much difference, so it is important to vaccinate on a regular basis before you get a problem. Another precautionary measure is to prevent animals from eating bones by supplementing them with phosphate as well as calcium, especially during the rainy season. It is also important to regularly check your water and feeding sources to reduce any little animal contamination. You should also burn and/or bury carcasses of animals that have died from Botulism.
Fortunately, Botulism is not zoonotic (not transmitted from animals to people) but it has a significant financial hardship for affected farmers, especially during a disease outbreak. I’m sure we all wouldn’t want to witness our animals succumbing to a preventable disease like Botulism because we, as farmers, neglected to vaccinate them on time.