By Imogen Mathers
This week, the Ugandan government confirmed a Rift Valley fever outbreak in the southwest of the country, close to the border with Rwanda. It is Uganda’s first outbreak, and alarm bells are ringing: local media report a dramatic slump in dairy and meat sales.
Because Rift Valley fever is a zoonotic disease — in this case passed to humans by exposure to the flesh or bodily fluids of infected animals and via mosquitoes — when outbreaks occur, governments usually ban the slaughter of livestock and the consumption of meat and dairy products. Epidemiologically, at least, this makes sense: to end an outbreak, it is essential to isolate and eradicate the source.
But conventional government approaches to outbreaks are often flawed, says Salome Bukachi, an anthropologist at the University of Nairobi, who has been researching Rift Valley fever outbreaks among pastoralist communities in northeast Kenya.
Firstly, she says, this is because the government does little to mitigate the health and livelihood impact of meat bans. 
For the mainly Muslim, ultra-poor pastoralist communities where Bukachi has carried out research, the milk, blood and flesh of animals are the crux of both diets and cultures. “What is the community expected to eat when these bans are there?” Bukachi asks. “The government does not offer alternatives for the communities who depend heavily on these products for food.”
Food relief is vital, she says. The remoteness of these communities and the bad roads make delivering food a challenge, but a “multisectoral approach”, drawing on the expertise and access of aid organisations specialising in food relief delivery, will help, she adds.
The second big issue is communication, Bukachi tells me. Information and how it is delivered are critical to people’s perception of risk and the actions they take: the more information people have about how the disease spreads and is contained, the more likely they will be to act and so help prevent further outbreaks.
But the government’s “firefighting” approach is often clumsy and insensitive, Bukachi says. Government announcements are broadcast in a dictatorial style, lack detail, and tell people how to behave without telling them why — meaning they’re less likely to respond.
And rather than delivering bland public service announcements on radio and in newspapers, government should channel messages through local ‘gatekeepers’ whom people trust — such as religious leaders.
“We’ve found that when information is passed through … government officials, people did not take that information well,” Bukachi says. But when recognised leaders are used, people listened and didn’t consume livestock products, as would have been the case if religious leaders hadn’t been involved, she adds.
During an outbreak a few years ago, information was passed to people via religious leaders at a Muslim festival, and this vastly improved understanding and response to information.
Finally, government response shouldn’t just involve ‘firefighting’ when outbreaks strike: instead, build up knowledge in disease-free periods, and people will be better able to act when fever arrives.
 Augustino A. Chengula and others Socio-economic impact of Rift Valley fever to pastoralists and agro pastoralists in Arusha, Manyara and Morogoro regions in Tanzania (SpringerPlus, 18 October 2013)
Photo: Mark Auer/Flickr