Declan McKeever: ILRI and ILRAD lose a friend, with a personal tribute by Brian Perry

Cow, tree, hut

Declan McKeever,a former scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and its predecessor, the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases (ILRAD), brilliant immunologist, great friend, Irish wit and agent provocateur for all things unashamedly intelligent, has died.

ILRI staff last saw Declan end of last November, when he came to the ILRI Christmas party in Nairobi, where he was looking good, telling old and new stories, many about his sickness and his ongoing recovery, and things and people and insights that had moved him in his battle against cancer. His focus at that Christmas party was on other people’s trials, old friends, things that matter. He was tender as well as smart. His heart was open, his wit still dry.

He was looking forward to coming out to ILRI and Kenya again this weekend, to participate in a newly formed consortium to beat back an old foe of his and ILRI’s and ILRAD’s, East Coast fever, a cattle killing disease devastating the livelihoods of the poor in Africa.

He will be badly missed. We will not be the same without him.

An age-mate of his, Brian Perry, another illustrious former ILRAD/ILRI scientist, has written the following personal tribute.

‘We learnt with immense sadness that Declan McKeever died last night [23 Jan 2014]. He was diagnosed with myeloma in December 2012, underwent chemotherapy followed by an autologous stem cell graft in April 2013, had been recovering well, and was back at work full time later in the year. We send our sincerest condolences to his widow Christine, to Luke and Saoirse, and to Aoife and Leo.

‘Declan has been the closest of friends and confidants for the last 27 years, and I will miss him immensely. In the vibrant days of the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases (ILRAD), Declan epitomised the dedication to scientific discovery and innovation which consumed the institute at the time, in the search for an understanding of the immune responses to Theileria parva, and how these could be captured and deployed in disease prevention through vaccines. In its mission to tackle two of the most intractable and complicated African livestock diseases, ILRAD bred and nurtured many scientists and thinkers, almost all of whom had different views and approaches to tackling vaccine development, in a funding environment impatient for results, a scenario captured in the Science article of April 1992 entitled ‘Nairobi laboratory fights more than disease’.

‘Declan rose to the occasion, thriving on scientific debate, and complementing his acute intelligence with a subtle, penetrating, wit that epitomised his multiple contributions. ILRAD became ILRI in 1995, and Declan left ILRI in 1999 after 13 years with the CGIAR, taking a chair in Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Edinburgh University, and joining a cluster of former ILRAD scientists continuing on their search for a vaccine against East Coast fever, this time in colder climes. Having separated from wife Mary Lou, he remarried former ILRI scientist Christine Thuranira, and in 2007 they moved on to positions at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), University of London. Declan was Chair of Immunoparasitology, and Head of the Pathology and Infectious Diseases department, and had recently been appointed Vice Principal of RVC. A sudden and untimely end to a successful career. . . .

‘Declan was also an artist, well known for his cartoons of various staff members during the ILRAD days, and for his Christmas cards; while he lived in Kenya he donated the humorous artwork in the Christmas cards to various charities every year. There are some classics, such as the one on the left!

McKeever_Cartoon

‘From the cartoons, perhaps my favourite is that of the ILRAD Director General, Ross Gray, taking one of his unannounced trips to the labs in 1994 and encountering Jed Lamb skateboarding towards him (below left)!

ILRAD director general Ross Gray

He also drew a cartoon of Nobel Prize winner Peter Doherty (below centre)

ILRAD board member Peter Doherty

and one of ILRAD director of research Jack Doyle

ILRAD director of research Jack Doyle

and one for my 50th birthday present (below right), which hangs with pride in our house.

McKeever_Carton_Perry

‘Despite the impression on occasions of being quite irreligious, Declan had a strong belief, and a committed faith, which he drew on regularly. He was a devoted family man, exuding pride in his elder children, and taking on with ease the new roles and responsibilities of a father with young Luke and Saoirse. The reunion of all his children over Christmas 2012 gave him immense joy. . . .

‘When Declan became ill, he called me on skype to tell me of his condition. My wife Helena wrote to him and thanked him for letting us know. He replied: “Helena I was very touched by your message – it really brought home to me how important old friendships are. Niall MacHugh told me that I should tell my old friends because they will have something to contribute, and he was so right”.’

Brian Perry, Gilgil, Kenya, 23 Jan 2014

All drawings by Declan McKeever.

World’s largest agricultural research partnership, serving 1 billion poor, marks $1 billion funding milestone–CGIAR

Tanzanian Maasai helping to treat cattle against East Coast fever

Tanzanian Maasai help vaccinate their calves against lethal East Coast fever (photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann).

CGIAR has doubled its funding in the last five years, from $500 million (in 2008) to $1 billion (in 2013).

Officials say harvesting the fruits of this historic commitment could, among other benefits, lift 150 million people in Asia out of poverty by boosting rice production, provide 12 million African households with sustainable irrigation, save 1.7 million hectares of forest from destruction, give 50 million poor people access to highly nutritious food crops, and save up to 1 million cattle from dying untimely deaths each year due to a lethal disease.

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) is one of 15 global research centres belonging to CGIAR, which works with hundreds of partners to develop innovative solutions, tools, and technologies for the benefit of the world’s poorest people. It seeks to bring cutting edge science to bear on a wide range of issues facing millions of farmers and other poor smallholders in developing countries who collectively generate nearly 70 percent of the world’s food production.

‘The $1 billion in funding will help finance CGIAR’s 16 global research programs and accelerate the development of scientific, policy and technological advances needed to overcome complex challenges—such as climate change, water scarcity, land degradation, and chronic malnutrition, greatly improving the well-being of millions of poor families across the developing world’, said Frank Rijsberman, CEO of the CGIAR Consortium.

For more than 40 years, CGIAR and its partners have transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people with the tangible outcomes of agriculture research, including improved crop varieties, sustainable farming methods, new fish strains, novel livestock vaccines, climate-smart solutions, and incisive policy analysis.

For example:

In eastern Africa, a ‘live’ vaccine against the deadly cattle disease East Coast fever developed by ILRI with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and other partners and now being distributed by GALVmed, has saved 620,000 calves, benefiting up to 50,000 poor households that rely on cattle for food and income. The vaccine could benefit 20 million more people in the region, with annual benefits of $270 million.

  • Drought tolerant maize has increased farmers’ yields by 20-30%, benefiting 20 million people in 13 African countries.
  • ‘Scuba rice’, which can survive under water for two weeks, is protecting the harvests, incomes, and food security of poor farmers and consumers across monsoon Asia.
  • Newly developed potato varieties that withstand late blight disease and yielded eight times more than native varieties in the region have made the difference between having enough to eat or not in the Paucartambo province of Peru, where late blight threatened to devastate staple food supplies.
  • By integrating food crops with trees that draw nitrogen from the air and transfer it to the soil, an innovative agroforestry practice captures carbon and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, while improving soil fertility, rainwater use efficiency, and yields by up to 400% for maize in the Sahel region.
  • Across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Egypt, Nepal, and Pakistan, high-yielding wheat varieties resistant to Ug99, a highly virulent disease, have protected the livelihoods and food security of 500,000 farming families.

Read the CGIAR press release: CGIAR doubles funding to $1 billion in five years, 17 Dec 2013.

ILRI’s Jimmy Smith on global health and food security: Why developing-country livestock matter so much

Global food security

Jimmy Smith, director general of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) gave a keynote presentation this morning (17 Oct 2013) at the opening of the Global Animal Health Conference, ‘Developing global animal health products to support food security and sustainability’, in Arlington, Virginia.

Smith began his presentation, ‘Global health and sustainable food security: Why the livestock sectors of developing countries matter’, by setting out the state of global food security and questioning how the world will manage to feed itself as the human population grows before stabilizing at about mid-century. Some 60% more food than is produced now will be needed by then, he said. And, somehow, some 75% of that increase will have to come from increases in productivity rather than from increases in land under cultivation. This higher production, he said, must be achieved while at the same time reducing poverty and hunger and addressing environmental, social and health concerns. In addition, the greater food production will have to be achieved in the face of temperatures 2−4 degrees C warmer than today’s.

He pointed out the great nutritional divides in today’s world, and warned of malnutrition’s huge financial as well as public health costs.

Nutritional divides among 7 billion people today

He noted that gains in consumption of meat in poor and emerging economies are greatly outpacing those of the industrialized countries.

Gains in meat consunmption in developing countries outpace those of developed countries

Smith then pointed out how much of the world’s food comes not from large-scale farmers but rather from hundreds of millions of very small-scale farmers in developing countries.

Global food production: From where?

These small-scale food producers, he said, are more competitive than most people think. He cited two examples. In East Africa, one million smallholders keep Africa’s largest dairy herd, Ugandans produce milk at the lowest cost in the world, and Kenya’s small- and large-scale poultry and diary producers have the same levels of efficiency and profits. In Vietnam, 50% of the country’s pig production is done by farmers with less than 100 pigs, and producers keeping just 1 or 2 sows have lower unit costs than those with more than 4 sows. Scientists estimate that Vietnam’s industrial pig production could grow to meet no more than 12% of the national pig supply in the next 10 years, so small-scale farmers will continue to supply most of the country’s pork for the foreseeable future.

Global livestock markets

In a series of graphs, ILRI’s director general presented figures for livestock commodities being global leaders, for the huge global trade in livestock products and for the fast-rising demand for meat, milk and eggs in developing countries.

4 out of 5 of the highest value global commodities are livestock

Percentage increase in demand for livestock products

Global trade of livestock products (milk excluded)

Global trade in livestock products (milk included)

Global animal health

Smith said that the developing world’s smallholder livestock producers can continue to produce most of the world’s milk, meat and eggs only if we can find ways to improve livestock health, especially by reducing food safety problems that reduce market participation by smallholders, by reducing the endemic livestock diseases that greatly lower livestock productivity in developing countries, and by lowering zoonotic disease transmissions that threaten small-scale livestock production in poor countries—as well as human health in all countries.

Food safety in developing countries, where most milk, meat and eggs are sold in informal or ‘wet’ markets, is a bigger problem than most people recognize, the ILRI director general said. He said we need to manage the risks of illness while retaining the benefits—to livelihoods and food and nutritional security—of informally sold livestock foods. And, he said, we have to educate people about the various risks of these informal markets, where common perceptions can be misleading; eating vegetables sold in these markets, for example, can be as risky to health as handling cattle or drinking raw milk.

Gender is an important determinant of food safety in developing countries, Smith said, with evidence indicating that Africa’s women butchers sell safer meat than their male counterparts. Women and children and farm workers are also at greater risking in contracting food-borne diseases.

Regarding health advice, Smith argued that it is most useful when it is tailored for specific circumstances, when it is based on evidence, and when it is developed in and with local communities. It’s also been found that what works best for increasing food safety are social incentives (e.g., ‘good parents do X rather than Y with their milk cows’), and risk- rather than rule-based approaches. Finally, he said, relatively simple and cheap interventions can lead to substantial improvements in food safety.

The big livestock productivity gaps between rich and poor countries, Smith explained, are due largely to poor animal health in these countries.

Big productivity gaps, largely due to poor animal health, persist between rich and poor countries

Livestock diseases take a huge toll . . .

Annual losses from selected diseases--Africa and South Asia

. . . especially in Africa.

Animal disease is a key constraint in Africa

And the toll from ‘zoonotic’ diseases, which are transmitted from animals to people, is especially devastating.

A deadly dozen zoonotic diseases each year kill 2.2 million people and sicken 2.4 billion

These zoonotic infections harm poor people the most.

Greatest burden of zoonoses falls on one billion poor livestock keepers

Incidences of zoonotic events are worringly on the increase . . .

Emerging zoonotic disease events, 1940-2012

. . . and can have enormous costs . . .

Costs of emerging zoonotic disease outbreaks

. . . as they spread, just as African swine fever is now spreading.

Africa swine fever threatens US$150-billion global pig industry

Global animal health markets

The animal health markets in developing countries are already significant and are growing rapidly. The global animal health market is a multi-billion-dollar industry. The global human health market amounts to US$1000 million and the global animal health market, including livestock, pets and other animals, some $20 billion. The global livestock health market is worth about $13 billion, with the livestock health market in Africa now experiencing a 15.7% year-on-year growth (the second fastest growth after Latin America).

Just 15 countries make up more than 85% of the global animal health market today; demand for animal health markets in developing and emerging economies is increasingly important.

Take India, for example.

Animal health markets: India

To take advantage of the increasing opportunities in developing countries will require an understanding of smallholder livestock systems and customers, who will need tailored packaging and marketing (e.g., drugs in small packets), delivery systems appropriate for widely dispersed farms, surveillance systems for development of drug resistance, and ‘One Health’ approaches and ‘Rational Drug Use’ used for both people and their animals. Among the ‘game-changing’ livestock health products urgently needed in poor countries and communities are appropriate vaccines for Newcastle disease in poultry and East Coast fever in cattle and quality assurance for all veterinary medicines.

Jimmy Smith ended his presentation with four key messages:

Global health and sustainable food security: Key messages

And he closed his presentation the following thoughts.

The risks of ignoring pressing animal health issues in the developing world are huge:

  • Lost livelihoods in poor countries
  • Greater global food insecurity
  • Increased risk of human illness in all countries

The opportunities for improving animal health in developing countries are just as big. With appropriate approaches, this significant animal health market should grow rapidly, for the good of all.

View the presentation.

See other recent presentations by Jimmy Smith:

Improving the environmental sustainability of livestock systems in the developing world–ILRI’s Jimmy Smith, 30 Sep 2013

Why the world’s small-scale livestock farms matter so much: Keynote address at International Grasslands Congress, Part 1, 16 Sep 2013

Why tackling partial truths about livestock matters so much: Keynote address at International Grasslands Congress, Part 2, 16 Sep 2013

More presentations by Jimmy Smith.

ILRI geneticist wins prestigious ‘BREAD Ideas Challenge’ award for innovative way to improve livestock breeding services in poor countries

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) visit to project sites, June 2011

Fidalis Mujibi, a geneticist at ILRI, collecting information from a smallholder livestock farmer in Busia, Kenya. Mujibi is one of the winners of the 2013 ‘BREAD Ideas Challenge’ award for an idea to improve livestock breeding services (photo credit: BMGF/Lee Klejtnot).

Fidalis Mujibi, a Kenyan geneticist working with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, is one of the winners of the 2013 USD10,000 ‘BREAD Ideas Challenge’, announced in July.

The award is given each year by the American National Science Foundation and is part of the ‘Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) program, which is co-funded by the National Science Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This year, the award recognized 13 innovators amongst many applicants ranging from scientists, professors and graduate students from around the world. The winning challenges focused on ideas of solving pressing and largely ignored issues affecting smallholder farming in developing countries.

Mujibi received the award together with American scientist and beef reproductive management specialist George Perry, from South Dakota State University. Their idea is to eliminate the need for liquid nitrogen in livestock artificial insemination services in developing countries.

Liquid nitrogen is needed to preserve the semen used to inseminate dairy cows artificially, but it’s expensive and raises the costs of artificial insemination services for poor farmers in developing countries. Most of those providing artificial insemination services are unable to maintain a steady supply of liquid nitrogen in their tanks, leading to cases of dead semen being used for insemination. This in turn necessitates many repeated insemination procedures, which not only are unduly expensive but also result in long calving intervals, reducing the lifetime productivity of cows.

‘Our idea focuses on alternatives that could eliminate the “cold-chain” from the artificial insemination delivery process’, says Mujibi. ‘We’re exploring ways of delivering semen to remote villages in Africa where there is no infrastructure to support liquid nitrogen systems, so that farmers can access the germplasm they need easily.’

‘I want to explore new ways of helping Africa’s smallholder farmers to improve their livestock production through new germplasm delivery and novel reproductive tools. This will help them better cope with pressures from climate change and reduced farmland,’ says Mujibi.

Mujibi and Perry are preparing a full proposal they will submit to the American National Science Foundation in September.

‘The BREAD challenges range from the global to the local and across diverse disciplines’, said John Wingfield, assistant director for biological sciences at the National Science Foundation. ‘What they have in common is that they represent topics that have not had the attention or funding to prompt a solution. Solving any of these challenges would have a dramatic impact on the lives of millions of smallholder farmers around the globe.’

Read more information about the BREAD award:

http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=128546&org=NSF&from=news

Find out more about ILRI’s work in livestock genetics

http://www.ilri.org/ilrinews/index.php/archives/tag/dairy-genetics-east-africa-project

http://www.ilri.org/node/598