Saving more livestock, stabilizing more lives
How a made-in-Africa vaccine could combat multiple deadly livestock diseases at the same time
Posted by Alanna Mitchell on March 26, 2019
The first symptom to strike is a fever, followed by running eyes and snout, like an unrelenting sinus infection. The tongue swells with lesions so painful the animals refuse to eat. The eyes redden. Pneumonia sets in, a misery compounded by diarrhea. In nine out of 10 cases, the infected sheep or goat dies. During outbreaks, their corpses strew the fields.
The disease’s common name is goat or sheep plague, depending on which livestock are affected. The Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health calls it PPR, which is short for peste des petits ruminants (the scourge of small grazers), and has declared the disease so serious it must be reported to authorities when it breaks out. PPR spreads like wildfire, jumping from animal to animal and then country to country along with the illegal trade and movement of livestock. It doesn’t infect humans.
Alarmingly, PPR has begun to spread to new nations more rapidly in recent years. From the first case in Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa in 1942, the virus is now present in more than 70 countries. It has spread to 14 of those just since 2007, finally reaching Georgia, in eastern Europe, three years ago. From that small start nearly eight decades ago, today, approximately 30 million animals get infected each year. Because demand for livestock among low-income farmers is expected to double globally in the next 15 years, the PPR toll could rise.
That’s a problem. Sheep and goats often make the difference between eating and going hungry to many of the 300 million low-income families in Africa, Asia and the Middle East that rely on them. It’s not just the milk and meat the animals provide, but also wool, skins and manure for crops.
And the animals are often the only safeguard between security and catastrophe. When they fall ill and die, the people who raise them — mainly women farmers in livestock-based rural economies — are often forced to migrate to other communities or countries to find food. Healthy sheep and goats keep families on their own land and in their own culture. And when families can stay put, children have a better shot at going to school.
One simple way to keep livestock healthy is a vaccine. With a single dose, the animal has protection from PPR for life. In 2015, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations launched a campaign to eradicate PPR by 2030. It follows the decades-long effort to eliminate rinderpest, a disease that was a leading cause of death in cattle and domesticated yaks and buffalo until it was declared globally eradicated in 2011.
As part of that global effort, IDRC is supporting the modification of a PPR vaccine that’s already on the market, says Victor Mbao, an IDRC senior program specialist in Nairobi. The Morocco-based veterinary pharmaceutical company M.C.I. Santé Animale has already developed a vaccine against PPR as well as pox in both goats and sheep. It’s being used in Chad and other West African countries, says Baptiste Dungu, who was the firm’s head of strategy business development while the modification was taking place and is now chief executive of Onderstepoort Biological Products SOC Ltd. in South Africa.
The innovation is that M.C.I. has reformulated that vaccine, making it effective against Rift Valley fever as well. Rift Valley fever strikes in waves about seven years apart, infecting livestock as well as humans. It’s spread to humans through infected tissue and mosquito bites. An outbreak in Kenya in 2006 and 2007 killed 118 people. Because it attacks so rarely, farmers don’t think about routine vaccinations against it, Dungu says. “The PPR global eradication effort gives the opportunity to farmers to get awareness of vaccines and control other diseases.”
The next step is for M.C.I.’s partners at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease in Winnipeg to help test the combination vaccine. After that, it will go into field trials.
Dungu says the main cost of vaccinating animals in most countries is not the product itself, but mobilizing people and vehicles to get the vaccine where it’s needed. Making a single dose effective against more diseases is a “no-brainer,” he says. “It will make it easier to control several diseases at the same time. That’s a big advantage for farmers, but also for countries.”
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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.
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