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News Story
7 October 2021

Towards a new mindset for epidemic animal diseases

Farmer Bado (left) and Omar Mohamed (right) are training cows to walk in groups to extract wheat, Koka village, Ethiopia.

Photo: Ollivier Girard (CIFOR) / flickr.

Rinderpest, swine fever, niphah virus disease, porcine diarrhea are names that do not sound too familiar to many people. For those engaged in animal husbandry though, either on the ground or in research, these are synonymous with big trouble. These epidemic animal diseases have had and have consequences way beyond respective animal production units. The current COVID-19 pandemic has proven once again how interconnected and fragile our food system is, and how invasive and detrimental human intervention in natural ecosystems can be. Even though only a few are transmissible to humans, animal epidemic diseases must be detected and treated before entire local economies are disrupted.

On September 7th, 2021, the Swedish Royal Academy of Agriculture and Forestry (KSLA) arranged a webinar on the topic of transboundary animal diseases (TADs), that touches actors across food systems. Actors from academia, research, policymaking, and the private sector gathered to discuss approaches that would undermine TADs and enable economies worldwide to benefit from healthy livestock keeping by learning from the past and thus preventing further animal diseases from spreading globally. The webinar was presided by Peter Roeder, who was awarded the Bertebos Prize in 2020 for his work on epidemiology, diagnosis, and control of TADs. He specifically contributed to eradicating rinderpest in the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) between 2000 and 2010.

Key drivers of pathogen emergence and spread of TADs

Diseases occur at all times and emerge worldwide at various levels. In a virgin ecosystem, natural cycles even out population growth and ensure the thriving of different animal, virus, or bacteria populations, living together in equilibrium. The chances that a disease present in a single animal or in a single animal population spreads to other herds, species and territories, are very low, as Trevor Drew, Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, pointed out. In fact,

“[Transboundary animal diseases are] difficult to spot, sometimes not known until a human dies”, Ian Brown, Head of Virology, APHA, UK, added.

When there is a disease breakthrough though, the consequences are detrimental to both animal and human health, besides disrupting local economies. When entire communities depend on animal husbandry for food and trade and use manure as household fuel as well as natural fertiliser, animal diseases can rapidly lead to famines and social insecurity.
All speakers agreed on the variety of drivers that facilitate pathogen spread.

First, it must be understood that any human activity interferes with natural life cycles, and that most animal diseases reach a larger scale because of poor human management; 60% of all infectious diseases are thought to come from close contact between animals and humans. Globalisation and international trade, especially illegal trade, make it tedious to keep track of contaminated animals and animal products exported to other countries. Due to road building, settlements, mining and farming, deforestation obliges wild animal populations to concentrate on shrinking areas, and ultimately to migrate to farming areas, where they are prone to contaminate farmed animals. Climate change and related disasters, biodiversity loss, human growth are additional elements that facilitate endemic animal disease emergence.

Human migration is also a factor that eases infection spread, besides the importance of close-to-home livestock keeping for a vast majority of the worldwide population. Animal husbandry exists in all parts of the world, what differs is the infrastructure, and thus the way TADs emerge, spread and can best be tackled.

Furthermore, Peter raised concern about the appearance of new pathogens when farming new animal species such as larvae or locusts for human consumption and for feed production, going against the current trends seeing consumption of insects as the solution to end food insecurity. Outdoor keeping, especially in big herds, is also prone to spreading new diseases, brought by migratory birds and other external parasites.
Being briefed on some of the reasons for TADs to spread from animal to human, where do the solutions now lie? And whose responsibility is it to tackle that issue?

An organizer for a Bank-supported producer’s alliance checks animal health at a poultry farm near Santander in the Department of Valle de Cauca, Colombia.

Photo: Charlotte Kesl (World Bank) / flickr.

The way(s) forward to prevent and stop transboundary animal diseases

The expertise of Peter Roeder in rinderpest management enabled him to pinpoint the major keys in the eradication of a pandemic; (1) clear vision, (2) leadership and coordination by knowledgeable staff, and populations on the ground – that know the context better than anyone else, (3) collaboration amongst institutions and governments worldwide, (4) solid understanding of epidemiology, (5) focused work, (6) vaccine fit for purpose – and (7) access to a set of diagnostic and surveillance tools with high sensitivity.
Other participants agreed with Peter in his belief that the way the COVID-19 pandemic is being handled is not well coordinated yet, naming a few reasons for that such as a lack of international cooperation, insufficient diagnostic tools, and uneven distribution of a not-fit-for-purpose vaccine – that does not prevent virus spread but weakens disease progression and triggers virus mutation.

But even a “good” vaccine cannot be the only solution to tackle the issue of TADs, as a few constraints lie within their use; they are not always available, must be effectively distributed or do not have the same efficiency in different environments,among others. Focusing on disease prevention rather than on disease treatment should be the priority.

Furthermore, Christianne Bruschke, CVO, The Netherlands, depicted the difficulty of changing public opinion and gaining citizen involvement when discussing topics such as vaccination campaigns. According to her, it is difficult to find a balance between science, social norms, and the precautionary principle, emphasising the conflicting positions of facts and values. She still firmly believes that science can gradually help to gain trust amongst citizens, if communicated efficiently:

“More science will not lead to less disagreements, but to better disagreements.”

Conducting research on vaccines, planning eradication campaigns, going out to the infected populations and gaining people’s trust has a true cost; who should be held responsible for covering these expenses?

Transboundary expenses call for transboundary funding

According to some participants, the private sector, besides governments, has a major role in controlling TADs. “[it] is global business and will be solved by big corporations”, Prof. Ian Brown, Head of Virology, APHA, UK, uttered. There could be large benefits to participating in pandemic eradication programmes, if vaccinations or other control measures such as testing or providing training to farmers are taken into account.

Public-private partnerships are essential for animal disease control, especially in countries with an important funding gap in public epidemic disease control. Christie Peacock, SIDAI, Nairobi, Kenya, gave the example of a young lady who received training to become a veterinarian, so she could advise her clients and support her entire family contributing to more healthy livestock in her area. Misprescription is indeed an issue worldwide; wrongly dosed and prescribed antibiotics are one of the leading causes of AMRs.

Furthermore, Christie added that governments handing out free vaccines and free health undermine the private sector’s work. A holistic approach to TADs, considering both research on and distribution of antibiotics and drugs is crucial. This was likewise emphasised by The Global Fund, represented by Scott Boule and Susanne von Wächter. They presented their new One Health strategy to fight Malaria, Tuberculosis and AIDS, where animal health is regarded as equally important to human and environmental health. As a consequence, coherent action in all three sectors is needed to combat TADs.

Call for joint action to prevent epidemic animal diseases

All participants called for close collaboration to find a suitable solution to tackle the spread of TADs worldwide. A central feature of healthy systems are healthy humans, well-aware of the environment they are working in, and knowledgeable about the impact of their actions. As new TADs are very likely to emerge within the next years, old practices that have proven to be effective in undermining endemic animal diseases in the past must be kept in mind, and strategies adapted to the new context(s). Coupled with prevention measures, animal husbandry would thus be proactive instead of reactive and part of the solution. TADs as a global business will be solved by and with actors focusing on their very own local context.

Reporting by Magdalena Knobel, MSc. Sustainable Food Systems and Communications Consultant at SIANI