Scientists bet on lab to eradicate deadly livestock diseases

A veterinary officer vaccinates a goat in Bela, Mandera County. FILE PHOTO | NMG

What you need to know:

  • The government has launched numerous unsuccessfully campaigns to end the infections through mass vaccination programmes as well as application of acaricides. But they still persist.
  • However, there is the hope of reversing this following the launch of a special research laboratory at the University of Nairobi known as the “Feed The Future Innovation Lab for Animal Health”.
  • The lab will incorporate high-end research such as genome editing technologies to generate new types of vaccines

For years, Kenyan livestock farmers have incurred animal, livelihoods and lives losses thanks to infectious animal diseases such as the East Coast Fever (ECF), Rift Valley Fever (RVF) and foot and mouth.

Mostly impacted are pastoral communities who rear herds of cattle and goats for livelihoods.

As they move from one place to another in search of pasture and water, often this increases the transmissibility of these diseases in savannahs and forests since they are zoonotic, which means they can jump from animals to humans.

The government has launched numerous unsuccessfully campaigns to end the infections through mass vaccination programmes as well as application of acaricides. But they still persist.

Such failures can be attributed to lack of modern innovation labs at Kenya’s research institutes and university facilities for research, training and capacity building on animal diseases.

However, there is the hope of reversing this following the launch of a special research laboratory at the University of Nairobi known as the “Feed The Future Innovation Lab for Animal Health”.

The new unit seeks to identify interventions to reduce livestock diseases, particularly the deadly 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 how to deal with these kinds of problems at a PhD, Masters and undergraduate level,” Animal Health Innovation Lab Director at Feed The Future Thumbi Mwangi says.

It 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 (ILRI) which won Sh649.8 million ($6 million) competitive grant that could grow to Sh1.7 billion ($16 million).

Others include the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) and the University of Nairobi (UoN).

ECF is a fatal cattle disease caused by a single-celled parasite transmitted by ticks when they take a blood meal from an animal, resulting in animals and human deaths. The Food and Agriculture Organisation(FAO) says that, Theileria parva, the blood parasite that causes ECF is transmitted by the brown ear tick and multiplies in the tick's salivary glands.

“Once inside the animal the Theileria parasites invade the lymphatic system, where they multiply and interfere with the animal's immunity, making it sick and often causing its death. East Coast Fever is a major constraint to cattle improvement in sub-Saharan Africa” the UN agency says.

ECF is enzootic in East Africa and has been reported from Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, South Africa, Rhodesia, Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi and the Sudan.

Kemri Research Scientists and Director Centre for Public Health Research Zipporah Bukania says if ECF affects all animals, then farmers stand to lose their livelihoods through both selling the animal as well as byproducts.

“The other major effect is that we have less supply of animal products in the community when we have high coast fever within a community,” Dr Bukania reckons.

This comes at a time when the country seeks to manufacture its own local livestock vaccines to reduce high cost and international over-reliance, which make it harder for herders to access.

“Specifically for each additional cow vaccinated (at a cost of $6.37 per animal), the family ended up spending about $4 more per school semester on their children education,” professor Mwangi adds.

“The researchers found that each increase of 10 percent in the share of a family’s cattle that were vaccinated was associated with a 0.8 percent increase in the likelihood their daughters attended secondary school.”

Only last year, the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC) partnered with Kenya Veterinary Vaccines Production Institute (Kevevapi) to locally produce the vaccines against the three stubborn diseases.

The vaccines are used against pasteurella, enterotoxaemia and RVF.

They have been termed as a game-changer in livestock rearing since once the diseases are eradicated, farmers can have unrestricted access to premium markets. Pasteurella and enterotoxaemia vaccines were released in the market about two years ago.

The UoN Vice Chancellor, Kiama Gitahi says students at the lab will be drawn from different disciplines such as ten PhD students, six masters, three post-doctorate who will be guided by layers of professors to tackle the diseases.

“This is the first in its kind in Africa. The University of Nairobi is going to bring onboard the rich diversity of academia drawn from different disciplines,” the VC says.

Sub-Saharan Africa

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

In many sub-Saharan African countries, 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 RVF- a mosquito-borne disease caused by a virus that infects both animals and humans - claimed the lives of 150 people in Kenya and caused losses worth $32 million in livestock deaths, reduced animal productivity and trade bans on the animals and related products.

Outbreaks of the disease in Africa are associated with periods of above-average rainfall, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The highly infectious disease is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes or close contact with contaminated animals’ blood or organs, according to the WHO. With no specific treatment or effective human vaccine, Rift Valley fever can cause blindness and severe haemorrhaging, leading the victim to vomit blood or even bleed to death.

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

As of February 4, 2021, there were a total of 32 human cases (14 confirmed positive), and 11 deaths (CFR 34 per cent), according to WHO warning. During the last major outbreak of RVF in Kenya between November 2006 and March 2007, more than 234 people died and hundreds were hospitalised in the north eastern part of the country. This came with massive economic costs due to animal deaths, vaccinations as well as bans on livestock trade.

“In Africa, including Kenya, ECF is a major problem and in terms of mortality, we lose about one million calves per year to ECF alone,” ILRI Scientist and Tick Unit Manager Naftaly Githaka says.

The lab will incorporate high end research, for example, genome editing technologies to generate new types of vaccines.

ILRI Principal Scientist Lucilla Steinaa says they are aiming for a single shot vaccine without antibiotics.

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