ERDENET, ORKHON PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Herders call it the COVID-19 of livestock. It spreads swiftly, through dust kicked up by cattle hooves and car tires, and through the meat and blood of livestock. In the first two years of the pandemic, its spread abated, but now, Mongolian herders say, foot-and-mouth disease is back with a vengeance.
On an early February morning in Orkhon province, Togtokh Buduukhai stepped out of his yurt and peered into the distance, shielding his eyes with his hand. Then he hurried toward the veterinarian examining his animals and picked up a 2-year-old calf on the way. “This one is a little thin and unable to gain weight,” Togtokh said. “Please test it.”
Foot-and-mouth disease is common in Mongolia. The highly contagious virus, which affects cloven-hoofed animals, induces a high fever that can last up to six days, and blisters on the mouth and feet of infected animals. The country, home to 30 million sheep, 27 million goats, 5 million head of cattle and 400,000 camels, experienced 14 outbreaks between 2000 and 2017, and in 2017 and 2018 suffered a particularly virulent flare-up, with cases registered in 13 of Mongolia’s 21 provinces. During 2020 and most of 2021, cases plummeted as herder movement and vehicular traffic decreased during the pandemic. Since September, however, as lockdowns have eased, the virus has spread to at least 16 provinces.
Outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease are usually managed through quarantine. In Mongolia, the government restricts the sale of meat as well as movement to and from affected districts. Animals displaying clinical signs of the virus are culled. “Since the law states that livestock with foot-and-mouth disease should be killed, there is no other option,” says Urtnast Luvsan, the head of Orkhon province’s veterinary department.
KHORLOO KHUKHNOKHOI, GPJ MONGOLIA
Five of Tsedenkhuu Tserendorj’s cows, in Bulgan province in the north, were culled in 2021. “It was hard to watch,” he says. “I had no choice but to be quiet and have them shot so that the rest of my cows would not be infected.”
Mongolia’s livestock industry accounts for about 90% of agricultural production and employs 1 in 4 Mongolians, according to the International Monetary Fund. Herders rely on their animals for meat, milk and wool; they burn their waste to heat their homes. Losing livestock to disease can topple families into poverty.
“Having all of one’s livestock killed within a day after working hard to raise and multiply them amounts to destroying our whole life as herders,” says Altangerel Garidmagnai, a herder in Selenge province. Herders are entitled to 90% of the commercial value of the animals culled, according to Mongolia’s 2017 animal health law. But receiving this government compensation can take a long time.
Another 10 of Tsedenkhuu’s cows are being treated for a milder case of the virus, a five-day regimen that will cost him nearly 4 million Mongolian togrogs ($1,377). This is a significant investment — the average monthly income in Mongolia is about 1.3 million togrogs ($510), according to 2019 data from the national statistics office. But in the long run, it’s the more economical option. “Livestock is highly productive,” says Tsedenkhuu. “If all our sick cows are killed, it will cost us a lot.”
KHORLOO KHUKHNOKHOI, GPJ MONGOLIA
Wholescale culling is not an effective measure to suppress the virus because animals are often infectious for days before exhibiting symptoms, says P. Bolortuya, a veterinarian based in Ulaanbaatar. Much like COVID-19, the virus is never completely stamped out, she says, adding that a more comprehensive plan is required to keep it in check.
Outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease have other adverse effects. In a 2020 study examining the effects of a 2017 outbreak in eight Mongolian provinces, researchers noted the impact on herders’ dietary patterns; many restricted their meat and milk consumption. The gross economic loss from that outbreak was approximately $7.35 million, about 0.65% of the national gross domestic product.
To prevent outbreaks, the Mongolian government offers free door-to-door vaccination. But vaccine supplies have been limited this year. In his region, Togtokh was lucky to have his livestock vaccinated before supplies ran out. As the virus rages unchecked through the country, other herders are scrambling to follow suit.
“Even though they have not had coronavirus vaccinations themselves,” Togtokh says, “they are running around to get their livestock vaccinated against foot-and-mouth disease.”
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Immunity from the vaccine only lasts six months and doesn’t provide protection against all strains. Nevertheless, the vaccine is effective. “Unfortunately,” Urtnast says, “the infection spread out of control because we failed to stock vaccines against the disease.” Urtnast also says authorities didn’t allocate sufficient funds in the 2021 budget to control foot-and-mouth disease.
“When focusing on one disease, our government seems to entirely forget about others,” says Galbadrakh Dovdon, a herder in Bulgan province. “They just insist on killing livestock, claiming that there is no stock of vaccines, while foot-and-mouth disease has already become COVD-19 for cattle.”
The General Authority of Veterinary Services, the government agency responsible for livestock vaccination and animal health, declined to comment on the outbreak, citing its impact on Mongolia’s exports. It also declined to comment on whether the war in Ukraine would affect vaccine imports.
Following a monthlong delay, vaccine supplies arrived from Russia in late January, Urtnast says. Two and a half million doses of the vaccine were imported in February, according to the general veterinary agency, but in keeping with Mongolian regulations, will only be available to herders after 35 to 40 days. Vaccination is slated to begin in April.
Some herders fear that might be too late. “I just want to have my livestock vaccinated for the sake of not losing all my cattle to foot-and-mouth disease,” Altangerel says. “When I ask, they say that there is no vaccine, it has not arrived, and wait and see. I do not know until when I should wait. I just want it to happen — no matter how much it costs.”