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Banana Bacterial Wilt: The Disease That Came And Stayed Like HIV

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In Kabonero village, in Kyotera district, Patrick Bakumpe Makanga walks around his banana plantation with a satisfied grin running across his face. “Even with the long dry spell, I can harvest bunches with over 12 clusters,” he says.

However, between the early 1990s and 2000s, it was difficult to have such a beautiful banana shamba in this region. “My parents told me that the bananas were attacked by the wilt and almost entirely destroyed,” he says. The wilt completely withered the bananas and destroyed the shambas.

Makanga, then a young boy also remembers that it was during the same period when  people in this area of Masaka (then) were being ravaged by HIV/AIDS.

“While almost every banana shamba was being ravaged by the banana wilt, almost every family was losing a person to AIDS,” says Everest Mutyaba, a resident of Kyotera town.  Mutyaba says that just like HIV that had no cure, the banana wilt too did not have any cure.

According to various reports, HIV/AIDS was first reported in Uganda around this region of then Masaka district in the late 1980s. “Initially, we thought that it was some kind of witchcraft from Tanzania. “We thought that this was some kind of witchcraft meted against us by Tanzanians after some people robbed them,” he says.

When the bananas also started suffering ailments similar to HIV, residents again blamed witchcraft.  And as HIV/AIDS spread from Rakai to other parts of the country, so did the rampaging banana disease. 

What is the BBW?

The Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW) disease spread fastest in districts of south-western Uganda, including Masaka and Rakai at that time, before much later in 1994,  coming to Luwero, Mukono and then back to Bushenyi and Mbarara.

The disease destroyed 90% of bananas in the country at its peak in the 90s. “We thought that we would never grow bananas again,” Mutyaba says. At the same time, HIV prevalence in Uganda  was as high as 30% according to MOH records. This means that out of a population of around 16 million people at the time, 5million had HIV!

Just like HIV was transmitted through sexual intercourse between a person infected and one who did not, the BBW was transmitted when banana plants had contact with farm tools that had been used on infected bananas.

How the banana bacterial disease is spread

According to Dr Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, head of the National Agriculture Research Laboratories (NARL) in Kawanda and an extensive researcher on banana diseases,  the disease is caused by a bacteria however, transmission of the disease is aided through farm tools (pangas, hoes, knives and de-leafers) used by farmers, traders, livestock, insects, birds and bats that feed on sap from injured banana plants. The contaminated tools and animals transmit the bacteria through injuries on roots and aerial parts of the banana plant (suckers, bunches, flesh leaves) though these means are considered minor.

Symptoms of the disease

-The affected plants produce a variety of features, including leaves turning yellow and withering.

-If the plant has got bananas, they stop growing and ripen when still immature.

-Fruits show brown stains when they are cut.

-Yellow pus oozes from a cut stem and from the male bud after about 10 minutes.

-The plants stop growing and finally fizzle away.

-Externally, longitudinal brown strips can be seen on the inner side of the leaf sheaths of the plants.

How to control it      

Just like HIV, BBW is still to get a cure, however there are control measures that can be adopted to reduce its impact. Surprisingly, some of the measures-for example not using the same farm tools on different bananas are similar to those adopted against HIV.

-Remove the male bud to retard the spread of the disease. You should use a forked stick to remove the male bud after the last cluster forms. Within 6 months you will stop seeing disease plants then you can start using tools again.

-Destroy the sick plants by chopping them, then sun drying them.

-Make sure that you use very clean suckers when planting. This is similar to going for a blood test before engaging in sex.

-Disinfect your farm tools before you use them. You must also stop sharing farm tools. Hoes should not be used in the garden until BBW is cleared because they spread the disease through injuries on roots. Disinfecting a hoe as you dig is not practical. This is similar to disinfecting all sharp objects before using them again.

-Animals should be kept off browsing from the infected fields as they move the disease from plant to plant.

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