An international livestock agency has received an $11 million (Sh935 million) grant for developing a new East Coast Fever vaccine.
The International Livestock Research Institute (Ilri) has launched the project funded by the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation in the fight against the disease that the agency says kills an animal every 30 seconds in East and Central Africa.
The vaccine will replace the first generation strain that has encountered shortcomings.
“We need to control this disease because there are millions of people in East and Central Africa who depend on healthy cattle, and right now they are losing about one animal every 30 seconds due to this ailment,” ILRI’s vaccines biosciences programme head, Vishvanath Nene, said.
The existing vaccine developed by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) and Ilri helped farmers to protect up to 620,000 cows but its price of between $8 (Sh680) and $12 (Sh1,020) locked out many pastoralists and small scale farmers.
It also required refrigeration and took 18 months to produce a single batch while animals remained as carriers of the East Coast Fever parasite, putting other untreated animals at risk.
“While treated animals might recover fully, they are often left weak and less productive,” Dr Nene said, adding that livestock farmers should keep cows free of ticks that spread the parasite.
Estimates from Ilri show that the disease, which kills cows within three to four weeks of infection, threatens some 28 million cattle in East and Central Africa, majority of them owned by poor households.
Scientists believe development of the East Coast Fever vaccine could offer in-roads into the development of malaria vaccines as both diseases are caused by single-celled parasites.
Dr Nene says that upon invading a cow, the East Coast Fever parasites prompt the animal’s white blood cells to multiply rapidly just as cancerous cells do in the human body.
Unravelling the mystery behind this multiplication mechanism — as they work on the development of the new East Coast Fever vaccine — is expected to help scientists to come up with interventions for fighting cancer.
Ilri scientists and collaborating experts said they would improve the existing vaccine so that it can be a more effective interim solution than what is currently in the market.
Development of a new vaccine could take about 10 years.
African governments are reviewing policies to introduce pastoralists to crop agriculture, but the shift has met resistance in Uganda and Kenya.