Sleeping with chicken increases human diseases

Farmers living with chickens under their beds are increasingly exposing themselves to the fatal diseases transmitted from animals to humans which have increased 60 percent over the past decades, scientists warn.

This alarm comes in the wake of rising livestock farming especially in urban areas with data now showing that this kind of farming in Kenya has risen by upto 20 percent in the last five years. The farmers predominantly keep scavenging chicken, goats and dogs. However limited land has seen them leave the animals to scavenge during the day and then sharing rooms with them during the night. This is where the scientists say lies the greatest danger. Infact world's most dangerous diseases transmitted from animals to humans like Swine flu, Bird flu and Sars were first spread this way.

Informal livestock markets where the traders are constantly harassed and evade paying council fee has also exacerbated the situation, leaving the traders more concerned with evading the authorities than catering to their hygiene.

In Kangemi area of Nairobi livestock farmers have perfected the art of keeping their chicken under the bed in cramped conditions. Prisca Toro is one such farmer. Rearing eight indigenious chickens which she relies on for eggs which she supplies to a local shop, Tor says she lives in a small compound and cannot afford to build a cage for her birds. The single mother of three lives in a single room which she shares with her kids, the oldest being thirteen. After a long day of scavenging the chicken are stashed under the beds, four in Prisca's bed and four on the children's bed. “I dont think they can give me or my children any disease. I have been living with them this way for the last one year and nothing much has happened,”said Prisca. But scientists say that should never be interpreted to mean that the family is safe.

Prisca also argues that ever since she was a young girl in Mukurweini area of Central Kenya, she used to share her bedroom with her father's goats and sheep as the cows could not be left in their shed due to rampant theft, a situation many farmers agree with. “I can count for you the number of families in our rural areas where each member of the family had to share a room at night with an animal since theft was at an all time high then. We have never gotten sick,”said Mweke Watira another urban farmer in Nairobi but who hails from Naivasha. However the risks goes beyond just sharing rooms.

Another study in Dagoretti by International Livestock Research Centre ILRI, found women had more exposure to cryptosporidiosis, a diarrheal disease transmitted from cattle to humans through their involvement in milking activities, feeding and watering cattle, and caring for sick household members. But it also identified farm workers – mostly men – as a group with higher exposure risk.

The scientists well aware that it would be hard to get these farmers to do away with their animals recommend simpler and healthier ways of handling them. For example for birds the scientists suggest that they should be kept in a wicker cage at a distance from the bed, or in a shed close to home. Other simple approaches that would lead to improvements in food safety include the use of wide-necked vessels for milk that are easy to clean, tests for food safety that can be applied by consumers and traders

The message from Ilri is that policymakers should avoid kneejerk responses to health scares – blocking smallholder access to markets and favouring industrialisation. "These changes are often based on fear, not facts," say Ilri experts. "Without evidence of risk to human health by informally marketed foods or the best way to manage risks while retaining benefits, the food eaten in poor countries is neither safe nor fair."

Written by Aloyse Muinde for African Laughter