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FAO digital system throws livestock farmers a lifeline in war on Rift Valley Fever

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Dairy cattle. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • The system integrates FAO’s EMPRES Global Animal Disease Information System’s that provides Rift Valley Fever’s historical and current data as well as expert knowledge on its eco-epidemiology.
  • The Rift Valley Fever Early Warning Decision Support Tool (RVF DST) will combine data for monitoring climate variability and other risk factors.
  • The FAO has also developed a One Health guideline document for Rift Valley Fever preparedness, response, and contingency plans.

Thousands of Kenyan farmers have lost a source of livelihood due to the effects of infectious animal diseases such as the East Coast Fever, Rift Valley Fever (RVF) and foot-and-mouth over the years.

The diseases continue to ravage thousands of livestock annually despite many researches conducted on them.

The occurrence of infections means regular income and food losses, including meat and milk.

Eradication of the diseases has been unsuccessful owing to a lack of modern scientific laboratories, early detection programmes to avert the diseases from spreading out, low funding, and limited human capacity such as scientists in the country.

However, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao) has developed a web-based Rift Valley Fever Early Warning Decision Support Tool to help battle the disease.

The system integrates FAO’s EMPRES Global Animal Disease Information System’s that provides Rift Valley Fever’s historical and current data as well as expert knowledge on its eco-epidemiology.

The Rift Valley Fever Early Warning Decision Support Tool (RVF DST) will combine data for monitoring climate variability and other risk factors, including observed and forecast precipitation and anomalies, Normalised Difference Vegetation Index and anomalies and land surface temperature, according to FAO.

Others include El Niño forecasts, estimates and geographic distribution of susceptible, at-risk livestock species, past, and current Rift Valley Fever occurrences, human population, marketplaces, road networks, animal trade routes, water bodies and irrigation areas and soil.

“In addition, the tool offers expert knowledge on RVF eco-epidemiology (such as the FAO–International Livestock Research Institute Decision Support Framework), risk assessment and categorisation, analytical functions and charts of trends in major risk factors, as well as recommended actions to guide appropriate responses to RVF at country level,” says FAO in the report.

“An automated risk analysis report with charts of major risk factors, estimated animals at risk, and risk maps can be downloaded,” it adds. The Rift Valley Fever, whose outbreaks are associated with prolonged rains, is a highly infectious disease transmitted to humans by mosquitoes or close contact with contaminated animals’ blood or organs, according to the World Health Organisation.

The disease can cause blindness and severe haemorrhaging, with no specific treatment or effective human vaccine, leading the victim to vomit blood or even bleed to death.

The FAO has also developed a One Health guideline document for Rift Valley Fever preparedness, response, and contingency plans involving a pool of international, regional, national experts and epidemiologists from national veterinary services.

The 2019 Rift Valley Fever Early Warning Decision Support Tool, which was integrated into the online FAO Hand-in-Hand geospatial data platform in July 2020, was piloted in three RVF endemic countries in East Africa — Kenya, Uganda, and the United Republic of Tanzania — to provide decisionmakers near real-time Rift Valley Fever risk maps and assessments, which are updated every month.

The Hand-in-Hand geospatial platform is a web-based dashboard providing a suite of geospatial data from the FAO and other agencies for use by all countries and partners, promoting transparency and collaboration.

“The RVF DST has enhanced the organisation’s capacity to identify high-risk areas and issue alerts and early warning messages for prevention and control in countries at risk of RVF occurrence. These alerts and messages are issued well before the reporting of the first signs of RVF infection in the countries with a prediction capacity of at least one-two months,” said the UN agency.

This comes as the institutions of higher learning and research facilities are investing heavily in research on deadly animal diseases.

Only in May, the University of Nairobi became the first learning institution in Kenya to launch a special research laboratory — the Feed The Future Innovation Lab for Animal Health — to combat the infections.

The facility seeks to identify interventions to reduce livestock diseases, especially the deadly East Coast Fever (ECF) besides developing local capacity in animal health through research training and institutional development.

“Animal Health Innovation Lab is trying to remove these constraints by developing vaccines against the ECF, developing diagnostic tests and also training students in dealing with these kinds of problems at a PhD, masters and undergraduate level,” said Animal Health Innovation Lab director Thumbi Mwangi.

The programme is supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAid) through Washington State University working in partnership with scientists from the International Livestock Research Institute, which won a Sh649.8 million ($6 million) competitive grant that could grow to Sh1.7 billion ($16 million).

Other partners are the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation, Kenya Medical Research Institute, and the University of Nairobi.

The development comes when global economic losses from diseased livestock are estimated at $4 billion, while infectious diseases are responsible for about 30 percent of animal deaths.

In many sub-Saharan Africa, where livestock production accounts for 25 per cent of economic activity, these diseases threaten livelihoods and food security, according to the IDRC.

For example, between 2006 and 2007, the Rift Valley Fever claimed the lives of 150 people in Kenya and caused $32 million in losses in livestock deaths, reduced animal productivity and trade bans on the animals and related products.

In March, the disease affected two pastoral counties of Isiolo and Marsabit, resulting in animal and life losses.

As of February 4, 2021, there were 32 human cases (14 confirmed positive) and 11 deaths, according to a WHO warning.

During the last major outbreak of the Rift Valley Fever in Kenya between November 2006-March 2007, more than 234 people died and hundreds were hospitalised in northeastern Kenya.