Frontline livestock disease research in, and for, Africa highlighted in White House conversation today

Scientists at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) are working with many partners to improve control of major diseases of cattle in Africa.

East Coast fever in African cattle, one of the target diseases of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), is included in a message today at the White House delivered by Raj Shah, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. Shah will remind his audience that East Coast fever kills one cow every 30 seconds in Africa. Watch the live stream and join the conversation at 11am ET at the White House today, when Shah and others will answer questions about Innovations for Global Development.

Two other target diseases of ILRI’s are contagious bovine pleuropneumonia and trypanosomosis. All three diseases affect millions of the world’s poorest farmers. And all remain underfunded because they occur mostly in developing regions of the world.

ILRI recently produced three short films on research battles against these diseases.

CBPP: A new vaccine project starts
Contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (known by its acronym, CBPP) is found throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, where it causes most harm in pastoralist areas. The disease kills up to 15% of infected animals, reduces the meat and milk yields of infected cows (milk yields drop by up to 90%), and reduces the ability of infected oxen to pull ploughs and do other kinds of farm work. An existing ‘live’ vaccine against this disease produces severe side effects and gives only limited protection.

Watch this short (runtime: 2:35) ILRI film, ‘Developing a Vaccine for a Highly Contagious Cattle Disease’, on the research recently begun at ILRI and its partner institutes, including the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, to develop a more effective vaccine against this form of acute cattle pneumonia. This research is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

Trypanosomosis: A genetic approach to its control
Trypanosomosis, called sleeping sickness in humans, is a wasting disease that maims and eventually kills millions of cattle in Africa and costs farmers billions of dollars annually.

In 2011, using the latest gene mapping and genomic technologies, researchers at ILRI’s Nairobi, Kenya, animal health laboratories and at institutes in the UK and Ireland identified two genes that enable Africa’s ancient N’Dama cattle breed to resist development of the disease when infected with the causative, trypanosome, parasite.

This breakthrough should eventually make it easier for Africa’s livestock breeders to breed animals that will remain healthy and productive in areas infested by the parasite-carrying tsetse fly. The international team that came together in this project is an example of the disciplinary breadth and agility needed to do frontline biology today, and the complex research approaches and technologies now needed to unravel fundamental biological issues so as to benefit world’s poor.

ILRI’s collaborating institutes in this work include Liverpool University; the Roslin Institute and Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh; Trinity College, Dublin; and the University of Manchester. The Wellcome Trust funded the bulk of the work in this project.

Watch this short (runtime: 5:28) ILRI film, ‘Battling a Killer Cattle Disease’, on the international partnership that made this breakthrough in trypanosomosis research.

 

Trypanosomosis: A community-based approach to its control
Another ILRI research team has been working with partners and livestock keepers in West Africa to develop safer ways to treat their cattle with drugs to protect them from trypanosomosis. Parasite resistance to the trypanocidal drugs used to treat and prevent this disease has emerged in many areas and is a growing problem for farmers and governments alike. This collaborative research team recently developed good practices in the use of trypanocides to slow the emergence of drug resistance in the parasites that cause the disease. This film describes the disease and these practices, known as ‘rational drug use’, clearly and in detail to help veterinary workers and farmers treat animals safely.

ILRI’s partners in this project include the Centre International de Recherche-Développement sur l’Elevage en Zone Subhumid, Freie Universität Berlin, Laboratoire Vétérinaire Centrale du Mali, Centre Régional de la Recherche Agricole Sikasso, Project de Lutte contra la Mouche Tsétsé et la Trypanosomose (Mali), Pan-African Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Campaign (Mali), University of Hannover, Direction Nationale de l’Elevage et l’Institut de Recherche Agronomique de Guinée, Tsetse and Trypanosomosis Control Unit (Ghana), Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique du Bénin and the Nigerian Institute of Trypanosomiasis Research. The project was funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

Watch this ILRI film, ‘Community-Based Integrated Control of Trypanosomosis in Cattle’ (runtime: 12.48), for clear instructions on how to deploy drugs to better control trypanosomosis over the long term.

Market incentives–not top-down regulation–needed to help poor farmers take advantage of East Africa’s burgeoning pig industry

Uganda railways assessment 2010

A family of pigs are at home on a section of overgrown railway track near Kumi, Uganda, September 2010 (photo on Flickr by John Hanson/US Army).

Editor’s Correction of 18 Jan 2012
Today we have corrected parts of this story to reflect the following comment from CRP 3.7 director Tom Randolph:

Lessons learned in other smallholder livestock systems—especially smallholder dairying in East Africa and India—is that a typical policy reaction to animal and public health challenges is to seek more regulation. The problem is that such regulation often proves to be toothless (i.e. cannot be effectively enforced by veterinary services) and ultimately anti-poor. We are pursuing alternative approaches that encourage farmers and other value chain actors to improve animal and public health-related practices by creating or exploiting market incentives rather than relying on top-down regulation. This will certainly be our approach as we engage in the Uganda smallholder pig value chain.’ — Tom Randolph, director of CGIAR Research Program on Livestock and Fish (CRP 3.7)

East Africa’s growing human population and rapid urbanization are creating new opportunities for small-scale farmers to make money from pig farming. According to Tom Randolph, an agricultural economist with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), ‘pig production [in East Africa] is taking off and growing rapidly and there is a rising demand for pork and related products, particularly in Uganda.’ Uganda has more than 3 million pigs and over 1.1 million people across the country (17 per cent of households) are involved in pig rearing and trade in pork products.

Randolph was speaking at the ILRI Nairobi campus during a recent workshop to find ways of diagnosing and controlling the spread of cysticercosis, a disease caused by tapeworms that can cause seizures and epilepsy in people when they consume undercooked pork infected with the tapeworms. Inadequate disease control is one of the biggest challenges facing the informal pig industry in East Africa.

Most of the pork sold in this region is produced by small-scale farmers who keep 1 to 3 animals in ‘backyard systems’, and the rapid growth of urban areas is opening up new opportunities for small-scale producers to intensify their pork production to meet growing demand.

For farmers in the region, pigs are ‘a cash crop of livestock’ because they do not carry cultural and social values like cows and chickens. This means that pig farming, because of its nature as a commercial activity and the shorter production cycles of pigs, can offer significant economic benefits to smallholders. ‘By supporting pig farming, we will be helping women, who are the ones who typically tend to the pigs on these small farms, and families to improve their income and their nutrition,’ said Randolph.

Despite the great potential offered by poor farmers from pig farming, Randolph said ‘the sector remains largely “invisible” and poorly regulated because the region’s governments have not focused on developing it.’

Improvements needed in the sector include providing better breeds and improving marketing systems to capture the ‘value that is currently being leaked out of the system’. Dealing with diseases such as African swine fever and cysticercosis is also critical. ‘Early diagnosis of diseases,’ said Randolph, ‘will give confidence to consumers that the pork they buy is safe.’

See workshop presentation:

Angela Merkel at ILRI’s African biosciences labs: A photofilm memento

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Lydia Wamalwa talks with German Chancellor (and former scientist) Angela Merkel at ILRI-BecA labs (photo credit: ILRI/Njoroge).

Through photographs and quotations, this photofilm celebrates a visit Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, paid to the Nairobi headquarters of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) on 12 July 2011.

This afternoon, staff at the Nairobi headquarters of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) are holding their annual Christmas/holiday party, so we’re in an early festive mood and think this as good a time as any to post this ILRI photofilm (marriage of still photographs with sound) of a visit German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid to ILRI on 12 July 2011, which happened to be the last day of work of Carlos Seré, whose ten-year tenure as director general of ILRI was ending.

(We like to remark around here about how kind it was of the German Chancellor to come all the way to Nairobi to bid our director general farewell!)

The visit went well, with the sun—and ILRI’s newly refurbished and state-of-the-art biosciences laboratories—shining and ILRI’s young bioscientists from across Africa and other parts of the world standing ready to provide the Chancellor with a lab coat, a theory, an answer, an explanation—and, as you shall see in the photofilm, a smile.

Take a look at the 2-minute photofilm. And allow us to take this early holiday moment in Nairobi to wish you early season’s greetings.

Read more about the Chancellor’s visit:
on ILRI’s News Blog
In Nairobi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel puts on lab coat, meets young bioscientists fighting hunger in Africa, 13 Jul 2011.

on ILRI’s Clippings Blog
Germany’s Chancellor Merkel to tour ILRI’s advanced biosciences labs in Nairobi today, 12 July.
German chancellor and minister of agriculture and Kenyan ministers of agriculture and health visit ILRI’s research laboratories, 13 Jul 2011.
Germany and ILRI sign agreement in Nairobi to collaborate in research to assess the pastoral-livestock-wildlife benefits from Kenya’s eco-conservancies, 13 Jul 2011.

Updated and extended Animal Genetics Training Resource online this week

The Animal Genetics Training Resource (AGTR) is a unique, ‘one stop’, user-friendly, interactive, multimedia resource, targeted at researchers and scientists teaching and carrying out research in animal biodiversity and genetics.

It is a dynamic training resource designed to help inform the design and implementation of breeding programmes and provide information that will empower countries and institutions to undertake their own research. It covers established and rapidly developing areas, such as genetic based technologies and their application in livestock breeding programmes.

Core modules in the AGTR are:

  1. Global perspectives on animal genetic resources for sustainable agriculture and food production;
  2. Improving our knowledge of tropical indigenous animal genetic resources;
  3. Sustainable breeding programmes for tropical farming systems;
  4. Quantitative methods to improve the understanding and use of animal genetic resources; and
  5. Teaching methods and science communication.

The modules are supported by over 40 case studies that summarize real-life experiences and capture indigenous knowledge and lessons learnt from developing countries. The case studies also illustrate principles and methodologies commonly applied in animal genetics, from real-life situations and they highlight knowledge gaps appropriate for post-graduate theses or further research.

A linked breed information tool incorporates all the breeds highlighted in the modules/case studies. Practical examples, exercises, compendia, a library with full-text articles, and links to relevant web resources are included. It also has links to many other information sources on and related to AnGR, including the Domestic Animal Genetic Resources Information System (DAGRIS: http://dagris.ilri.cgiar.org) and the Domestic Animal Diversity Information System (DAD–IS: http://dad.fao.org). A high quality and accuracy of the contents of the AGTR is assured through an external review process by subject matter specialists.

View the Resource online at http://agtr.ilri.cgiar.org

AGTR is a joint product of ILRI and SLU – the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (www.slu.se)

The first version of AGTR was released as a CD in October 2003. It included the first versions of the five training modules, case studies and breed information focused on livestock breeds mainly in Africa and to a small extent in Asia. It also included a few exercises, two video clips and a library of 50 documents.

The second version, released in 2006, was more expansive and comprehensive than Version 1. It was made available both as a CD and on the Web, and included additional information for Asia as well as for Africa.
Version 3 is online in November 2011 on a fully web-enabled platform, which allows for direct online revisions and content comments by authors. CD versions of the same will be prepared in 2012. Significant changes have been made to the content of the Modules. All of the case studies were externally reviewed and subsequently revised, and new case studies have been added. Software manuals for word processing and presentation have been updated, and an example of using the statistical software ‘R’ (freely available) has been added. The greatly enhanced multimedia section now includes links to film and clips by ILRI, as well as pictures of numerous livestock breeds.

US-Kenyan team developing vaccine to protect African cattle against deadly East Coast fever

Dissecting ticks to extract parasites at ILRI

Staff of ILRI’s Tick Unit dissect ticks to extract the parasite Theileria parva, which causes East Coast fever in cattle (photo credit: Brad Collis).

A vaccine that protects cattle against East Coast fever, a deadly disease in eastern and central Africa, is being developed by scientists in Kenya working for the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) jointly with scientists at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Animal Disease Research Unit in Pullman, Washington, which is part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). ARS is the USDA’s chief intramural scientific research agency. This research, which looks at combination vaccines for tick-borne diseases, supports USDA’s priority of promoting international food security.

Scientists are focusing on the tick that transmits the parasite responsible for East Coast fever. Because this host tick and its parasite are similar to the tick and parasite that cause babesiosis, commonly called Texas cattle fever, in the United States, developing a vaccine for East Coast fever could lead to a vaccine for Texas cattle fever, which is a serious illness for wild and domesticated animals, especially cattle.

In an initial study, scientists developed a polymerase chain reaction test that detects parasite DNA in ticks. They used tick populations that were produced at ILRI to have different susceptibilities to infection with the parasite. Two different strains of ticks—Muguga and Kiambu—were compared. The Muguga ticks had a low level of parasitic infection, whereas the Kiambu ticks were highly susceptible.

Understanding genetic differences between these two tick populations could lead to the identification of proteins that might be good targets for a vaccine to help control East Coast fever.

This international partnership is part of a global community effort to control diseases that limit food and fiber production. Although East Coast fever isn’t currently a problem in the United States, this collaborative research aids in keeping the US and other countries free of the disease. Results of this collaborative research may be applied to help control similar parasitic diseases.

Findings from this research were published in Gene and in the Journal of Medical Entomology.

Read more at the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service: Partnership focuses on developing East Coast fever vaccine, 4 Oct 2011.

Read more about this research in the October 2011 issue of Agricultural Research Magazine.

Read more about this project on ILRI’s website.

Livestock under threat: Managing the future of native West African ruminant livestock

There is more livestock diversity in Africa than on any other continent. Some indigenous breeds of cattle, goats and sheep are disease resistant, and others can withstand feed and water shortages. But most are less productive than some imported breeds and so do not meet farmers’ needs.

Millions of poor livestock keepers are importing animals, or cross-breeding their local animals with imported breeds to get more productive livestock. But imported breeds need expensive care because they are much less hardy, and animal deaths are increasing. There is a danger that many of Africa’s indigenous livestock breeds will disappear, just as climate changes and population growth are making their hardy traits increasingly important for food security across the region.

This film tells the story of an unusual research and development project working to increase understanding of a disease-resistant cattle breed of West Africa along with what is needed to improve the marketing and processing of their products. This information will then be combined with better feeding and breeding schemes, farmer training and policy changes to make indigenous animals more profitable for poor farmers, so that the important genetic traits of these native breeds are not lost forever.

Watch a new 15-minute film produced by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI): Livestock under threat: Managing the future of native West African ruminant livestock, 29 Jun 2011.

World Bank president says it’s time to push the CGIAR agricultural research agenda

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Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank (image on Flickr by International Monetary Fund).

Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, spoke today (6 July 2011) at the 40-year-anniversary celebrations of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) at the World Bank in Washington, DC. His presentation followed a film about the historical beginnings of the CGIAR, including interviews of Norman Borlaug and Robert McNamara.

‘Both Norman Borlaug and Robert McNamara believed that it is possible to defeat hunger,’ Zoellick said. ‘They both worked to boost food production through science. And they both died within a few months of each other in 2009.’

Zoellick said that agriculture is a subject of strong personal interest for him; he grew up around farm families in the American midwest. And he said few things were as satisfying for him as speaking to farm families that had doubled, tripled or quadrupled their incomes through improved farm practices, which in turn rely on agricultural science.

Zoellick said that high food prices today are pushing 44 million people into poverty, and the global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

‘We’ll have to increase food production by 70% to feed everyone by mid-century,’ he said. ‘And we’ll have to do that with the rate of production increases dropping and in the face of climate change, which is predicted to decrease crop yields in Africa by 28%.’

Zoellick reported on some of the great achievements of the CGIAR over the last four decades. Among them, he cited the following work by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and its partners, including the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute.

There is now a vaccine for East Coast fever, which kills 1 cow every 30 seconds in 11 countries of Africa. The vaccine is expected to save more than a million cattle, with benefits worth up to USD270 million a year in the countries where the disease is now endemic.

‘I’ve been urging the G20 to put food first this year,’ said Zoellick. ‘One of my key messages at both G8 and G20 is the need to support agriculture and agricultural research.

“I see a 5-step challenge for the CGIAR,’ said Zoellick.
(1) Donor agencies increase funding to the CGIAR from USD670 million last year to USD1 billion by 2013.
(2) Donor agencies commit to multi-year predictable funding.
(3) Research institutions place greater focus on research to reduce post-harvest food losses (which can make up 20–50% of yields).
(4) Developing countries themselves increase their investments to agricultural research and development.
(5) Researchers and their supporters stand up for science and fight the current trend of cloaking ignorance in fashionable causes.

The moment is right to push the agricultural research agenda, Zoellick said. ‘The agricultural sector is fertile for innovation. And we can demonstrate the intimate links between this work and two of the big issues of our day—food security and climate change.’

Given the ammunition, he said, he’ll push this agenda forward.

Goat plague next target of veterinary authorities now that cattle plague has been eradicated

Last known occurrences of rinderpest since 1995. IFPRI Discussion Paper 00923, November 2009, ‘The Global Effort to Eradicate Rinderpest’ by Peter Roeder and Karl Rich, 2020 Vision Initiative, a paper prepared for a project on Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development (www.ifpri.org/millionsfed) (illustration credit: FAO GREP).

Jeffrey Mariner, former advisor for special action areas to the Pan-African Rinderpest Campaign and current senior scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), based in Kenya, is one of several authors of a paper published in the current issue of Veterinary Record on the subject of the rising importance of building a systematic program to eradicate a goat disease known as ‘peste des petits ruminants’ (PPR), or goat plague.

The editorial in the Veterinary Record explains why goat plague is replacing cattle plague among the world’s verterinary researchers.

‘This week saw a landmark in the history of the veterinary profession and, more specifically, its management of disease threats to food security. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) announced on June 28, 2011 that its member countries had passed a resolution declaring rinderpest to have been eradicated globally, building on an announcement in May that the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) at its General Session had passed a resolution to the effect that all countries in the world had been formally accredited as free from rinderpest.

‘These events mark the fact that the virus is no longer present in any of its natural hosts on this planet. No longer is it a cause of disease or a constraint to international trade. What is not generally appreciated is that the eradication of rinderpest has yielded benefits that surpass virtually every other development programme in agriculture, and will continue to do so into the future. For example, a preliminary study in Chad shows that over the period 1963 to 2002, each dollar spent on rinderpest eradication led to a benefit of at least US $16, a conservative estimate that only takes into account the benefits from reduced cattle deaths and resulting herd growth, without including secondary impacts on the economy as a whole (Rich and others 2011).

‘Building on the dramatic success of the global effort to eradicate rinderpest we now wish to draw attention to a related but significantly different morbillivirus disease, peste des petits ruminants (PPR), also known variously as goat plague, pseudorinderpest, pneumoenteritis and kata. A comprehensive review of the disease by research scientists at the Institute for Animal Health Pirbright laboratory (IAH Pirbright) is published in this issue of Veterinary Record and explains the scientific basis for considering eradication (Baron and others 2011).

‘Until relatively recently PPR was considered to be a parochial disease of west Africa; however, its range is now recognised to affect most of sub-Saharan Africa as well as a swathe of countries from Turkey through the Middle East to south Asia with recent alarming extensions into north Africa, central Asian countries and China. Capable of causing very high mortality in susceptible goat herds and sheep flocks, PPR exerts a major economic impact on farmers and their families dependent on small ruminants. There is a growing appreciation that PPR is a most serious constraint to the livelihoods of farming families and to food security in affected countries and that its control warrants significant investment. An additional concern is the lethal nature of PPR infection in wildlife species, many of which are endangered or threatened, including gazelles and mountain caprines. Until recently, losses were apparently restricted to extensive wildlife collections in the Middle East but now outbreaks are being recognised in free-ranging species such as the Sindh ibex (Capra aegagrus blythi) in Pakistan. It is probable that many cases of wildlife disease have passed unnoticed in remote locations.

‘Encouraged by what has been achieved with rinderpest and an understanding that the factors that marked rinderpest eradication as feasible apply equally to PPR, we believe that a global programme for the total eradication of PPR should be established as an international undertaking without delay. The FAO has recently hosted a number of symposia and workshops at which participating chief veterinary officers have unanimously requested such a global initiative against PPR. . . .’

Read the whole editorial in Veterinary Record: Rinderpest eradicated; what next?, 2011: 169. DOI:10-11 doi:10.1136/vr.d4011

Read a paper by Peter Roeder and ILRI scientist Karl Rich, The global effort to eradicate rinderpest, IFPRI Discussion Paper 00923, November 2009, prepared for the project on Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development.

Deadly rinderpest virus today declared eradicated from the earth–‘greatest achievement in veterinary medicine’

At OIE, ILRI's Jeff Mariner and others responsible for the eradication of rinderpest

At the 79th General Session of the United Nations World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), in Paris in May 2011, ILRI’s Jeff Mariner (second from right) stands among a group of distinguished people heading work responsible for the eradication of rinderpest, a status officially declared at this meeting (image credit: OIE).

Several world bodies are celebrating what is being described as ‘the greatest achievement in veterinary medicine’: the eradication of only the second disease from the face of the earth.

The disease is rinderpest, which means ‘cattle plague’ in German. It kills animals by a virus—and people by starving them through massive losses of their livestock.

‘In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,’ reports the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), ‘the disease devastated parts of Africa, triggering extensive famines. . . . After decades of efforts to stamp out a disease that kept crossing national borders, countries and institutions agreed they needed to coordinate their efforts under a single, cohesive programme. In 1994, the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme (GREP) was established at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in close association with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

‘Excellent science, a massive vaccination effort, close international coordination and the commitment of people at all levels have helped make rinderpest eradication possible.

‘On June 28, 2011, FAO’s governing Conference will adopt a resolution officially declaring that rinderpest has been eradicated from animals worldwide. The successful fight against rinderpest underscores what can be achieved when communities, countries and institutions work together.’

Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty

Australian Peter Doherty, 1996 winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine who served on the board of trustees of the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases (ILRAD), a predecessor of  ILRI (photo credit: published on the Advance website).

Australian Peter Doherty, an immunologist who is the only veterinarian to win the Nobel Prize, for Physiology or Medicine, in 1996, and who served as chair of the board of trustees research program of the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases (ILRAD), a predecessor of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), is attending the FAO ceremonies this week. In an interview with FAO, he said:

Vaccine research is currently a very dynamic area of investigation and with sufficient investment and the enthusiastic participation of industry partners at the “downstream” end, we can achieve even better vaccines against many veterinary and human diseases.

The Washington Post in May reported that ‘the World Organization for Animal Health, at its annual meeting in Paris on Wednesday, accepted documentation from the last 14 countries that they were now free of rinderpest. The organization, which goes by its French acronym, OIE, was started in 1924 in response to a rinderpest importation in Europe.

‘The most recent recorded outbreak occurred in Kenya in 2001. Much of the past decade has been spent looking for new cases, in domesticated animals and in the wild, wandering herds of ungulates, or hoofed animals, in East Africa. The last place of especially intense surveillance was Somalia, where the final outbreak of smallpox occurred in 1977.

‘“There are a huge number of unsung heroes in lots of countries that made this possible,” said Michael Baron, a rinderpest virologist at the Institute for Animal Health in Surrey, England. “In most places, they were ordinary veterinary workers who were doing the vaccination, the surveillance, the teaching.”

‘Three things made rinderpest eradicable. Animals that survived infection became immune for life. A vaccine developed in the 1960s by Walter Plowright, an English scientist who died last year at 86, provided equally good immunity. And even though the virus could infect wild animals, it did not have a reservoir of host animals capable of carrying it for prolonged periods without becoming ill.

‘In 1994, the FAO launched an eradication program that was largely financed by European countries, although the United States, which never had rinderpest, also contributed money. The effort consisted of massive vaccination campaigns, which were made more practicable when two American researchers made a version of the Plowright vaccine that required no refrigeration. . . .’

One of those researchers was Jeffrey Mariner, now working at ILRI, in Nairobi, Kenya. Mariner also helped in surveillance work ‘with a technique called “participatory epidemiology” in which outside surveyors meet with herdsmen and ask open-ended questions about the health of their animals and when they last noticed certain symptoms.

‘“It was local knowledge that really helped us trace back the last places where transmission occurred—sitting down underneath a tree in the shade, listening to storytelling,” said Lubroth, of the FAO. . . .’

Read the whole article in the Washington Post, Rinderpest, or ‘cattle plague,’ becomes only second disease to be eradicated, 27 May 2011.

Read FAO’s interview of Peter Doherty: Healthier animals, healthier people, June 2011.

Short film illustrates expanded, agile partnerships behind recent disease research breakthrough

This short (5-minute) film, ‘Battling a Killer Cattle Disease’, produced by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), provides background and context for a recent research breakthrough made at ILRI’s animal health laboratories in Nairobi, Kenya, and at their partner institutions in the UK and Ireland. The research was funded over 7 years in large part by the Wellcome Trust in addition to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Trypanosomosis is a wasting disease of livestock that maims and eventually kills millions of cattle in Africa and costs the continent billions of dollars annually.

In 2011, a group of geneticists at these collaborating institutions identified two genes that enable Africa’s ancient N’Dama cattle breed to resist development of the disease trypanosomosis when infected with the causative, trypanosome, parasite.

The team members were able to make use of the latest gene mapping and genomic technologies because they had the genetic systems and experimental populations of livestock in place to do so as these technologies came on stream.

Eventually, these results should make it easier for livestock breeders in Africa to breed animals that will remain healthy and productive in areas infested by the disease-carrying tsetse fly.

The international team that came together in this project is an example of the disciplinary breadth as well as agility needed to do frontline biology today. In this work, the team developed several new research approaches and technologies that were needed to unravel some fundamental biological issues, with likely benefits for many African farmers and herders.

Those interviewed in the film include Harry Noyes, at the University of Liverpool; Alan Archibald, at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh; Andy Brass, at the University of Manchester; and Steve Kemp and Morris Agaba, at ILRI.

Amid soaring meat costs, officials from East Africa and Middle East seek plan to keep animal diseases from disrupting livestock trade

Orma Boran cattle crossing a river in Kenya

New approach to Rift Valley fever outbreaks aims to ensure food safety as region boosts livestock imports from Africa (photo credit: ILRI/Dolan)

With increased trade in livestock products offering a possible antidote to high food prices, livestock experts from the Middle East and 12 African countries are meeting this week (13-16 June, 2011) in Dubai to develop a strategy that eliminates the need to impose devastating bans on livestock imports from the Horn of Africa, as prevention against the spread of Rift Valley fever. The strategy should expedite the flow of livestock products while increasing safety of the overall livestock trade in the region.

Convened by the African Union’s Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the workshop will encourage officials and livestock traders to use a simple ‘Decision Support Planning Tool’ to guide and moderate their responses to Rift Valley fever outbreaks.

The ‘decision support tool’ for Rift Valley fever was developed by 30 experts and decisions-makers from across the Horn of Africa with technical assistance from researchers at ILRI, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and other partners. The tool will be used by chief veterinary officers and other national decision-makers. Its framework identifies the sequence of events likely to occur as the risk of a disease outbreak increases.

Rift Valley fever is a mosquito-borne virus found in eastern, western and southern Africa, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Epidemics emerge periodically with prolonged rains. Climate and land-use changes could make outbreaks more frequent. A study done by ILRI economists Karl Rich and Francis Wanyoike indicated that the Rift Valley fever outbreak in 2007 cost Kenya at least USD32 million.

‘We must avoid unnecessary disruptions in agricultural trade between East Africa and the Middle East,’ said Ahmed El Sawalhy, director of AU-IBAR. ‘Livestock products must be safe and action concerning disease outbreaks must be in line with the actual threat.’ To this end, an animal health certification model suitable for pastoral livestock production systems and that promotes OIE standards has been developed by AU-IBAR in partnership with FAO and the Royal Veterinary College, London. The model is based on risk assessment and involves integration of both upstream animal health inspection and certification at entry points, markets and at the quarantines.

Time is also of critical importance in prevention and control of transboundary animal diseases. ‘In the last Kenyan Rift Valley fever outbreak, control measures were implemented late—not until there were definitive signs of an outbreak,’ said Jeffrey Mariner, an epidemiologist at ILRI. ‘This tool links early warning signs to control measures that can be implemented before animals or people begin falling ill. The new tool could reduce the impact of Rift Valley fever, and maybe even prevent some local outbreaks and has the potential to prevent the spread of Rift Valley fever through trade.’

‘The good news,’ says Bernard Bett, an epidemiologist at ILRI, ‘is that the impact of Rift Valley fever can be mitigated with early action during an outbreak, but veterinary officers and  decision-makers need to know what interventions to implement—and when—as the  stages of an epidemic  unfold.’

Rift Valley fever is best prevented through animal vaccination. But vaccines are expensive and few governments are willing to pay for expensive vaccines unless evidence indicates an epidemic is imminent. Regional cooperation is required to build consensus on managing the disease and to prevent trade disruptions.

Larry Meserve, USAID/EA’s regional mission director commented, ‘President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative aims to increase food security throughout Africa. To succeed, we must all help to improve the capacity of leadership in the Horn of Africa to anticipate potentially disastrous events like disease epidemics so that appropriate preventive or mitigating measures are taken before it is too late. Livestock is a vital staple crop in this part of the world, and both the private and public sectors have to do everything possible to prevent unnecessary disruptions in the trade of livestock and other commodities.’

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Scientists identify livestock genes to unlock protection against one of Africa’s oldest animal plagues

Cow suffering from trypanosomosis

Cow suffering from trypanosomiasis (photo credit: ILRI/Elsworth).

An international research team using a new combination of approaches has found two genes that may prove of vital importance to the lives and livelihoods of millions of farmers in a tsetse fly-plagued swathe of Africa the size of the United States. The team’s results were published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The research, aimed at finding the biological keys to protection from a single-celled trypanosome parasite that causes both African sleeping sickness in people and a wasting disease in cattle, brought together a range of high-tech tools and field observations to address a critical affliction of some of the world’s poorest people.

With increased surveillance and control, sleeping sickness infections in people have dropped ten-fold in the last 13 years, from an estimated 300,000 cases a year in 1998 to some 30,000 in 2009, with the disease eventually killing more than half of those infected. Although best known for causing human sleeping sickness, the trypanosome parasite’s most devastating blow to human welfare comes in an animal form, with sick, unproductive cattle costing mixed crop-livestock farmers and livestock herders huge losses and opportunities. The annual economic impact of ‘nagana,’ a common name in Africa for the form of the disease that affects cattle (officially known as African animal trypanosomiasis), has been estimated at US$4–5 billion.

In a vast tsetse belt across Africa, stretching from Senegal on the west coast to Tanzania on the east coast, and from Chad in the north to Zimbabwe in the south, the disease each year renders millions of cattle too weak to plow land or to haul loads, and too sickly to give milk or to breed, before finally killing off most of those infected. This means that in much of Africa, where tractors and commercial fertilizers are scarce and prohibitively expensive, cattle are largely unavailable for tilling and fertilizing croplands or for producing milk and meat for families. The tsetse fly and the disease it transmits are thus responsible for millions of farmers having to till their croplands by hand rather than by animal-drawn plow.

‘The two genes discovered in this research could provide a way for cattle breeders to identify the animals that are best at resisting disease when infected with trypanosome parasites, which are transmitted to animals and people by the bite of infected tsetse flies,’ said senior author Steve Kemp, a geneticist on joint appointment with the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the University of Liverpool.

This genetics of disease resistance research was led by scientists from ILRI in Africa and from the UK universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh, and involved researchers from other institutions in Britain, Ireland and South Korea.

The researchers drew on the fact that while the humped cattle breeds characteristic of much of Africa are susceptible to disease-causing trypanosome parasites, a humpless West African breed, called the N’Dama, is not seriously affected by the disease. Having been domesticated in Africa some 8,000 or more years ago, this most ancient of African breeds has had time to evolve resistance to the parasites. This makes the N’Dama a valued animal in Africa’s endemic regions. On the other hand, N’Dama cattle tend to be smaller, to produce less milk, and to be less docile than their bigger, humped cousins.

African agriculturalists of all kinds would like to see the N’Dama’s inherent disease resistance transferred to these other more productive breeds, but this is difficult without precise knowledge of the genes responsible for disease resistance in the N’Dama. Finding these genes has been the ‘Holy Grail’ of a group of international livestock geneticists for more than two decades, but the genetic and other biological pathways that control bovine disease resistance are complex and have proven difficult to determine.

The PNAS paper is thus a landmark piece of research in this field. The international and inter-institutional team that made this breakthrough did so by combining a range of genetic approaches, which until now have largely been used separately.

‘This may be the first example of scientists bringing together different ways of getting to the bottom of the genetics of a very complex trait,’ said Kemp. ‘Combined, the data were like a Venn diagram overlaying different sets of evidence. It was the overlap that interested us.’

They used these genetic approaches to distinguish differences between the ‘trypano-tolerant’ (humpless) N’Dama, which come from West Africa, and ‘trypano-susceptible’ (humped) Boran cattle, which come from Kenya, in East Africa. The scientists first identified the broad regions of their genomes controlling their different responses to infection with trypanosome parasites, but this was insufficient to identify the specific genes controlling resistance to the disease. So the scientists began adding layers of information obtained from other approaches. They sequenced genes from these regions to look for differences in those sequences between the two breeds.

The team at Edinburgh conducted gene expression analyses to investigate any differences in genetic activity in the tissues of the two cattle breeds after sets of animals of both breeds were experimentally infected with the parasites. Then, the ILRI group tested selected genes in the lab. Finally, they looked at the genetics of cattle populations from all over Africa.

Analyzing the vast datasets created in this research presented significant computational challenges. Andy Brass and his team in the School of Computer Science at the University of Manchester managed to capture, integrate and analyze the highly complex set of biological data by using workflow software called ‘Taverna,’ which was developed as part of a UK e-Science initiative by Manchester computer scientist Carole Goble and her ‘myGrid’ team.

‘The Taverna workflows we developed are capable of analyzing huge amounts of biological data quickly and accurately,’ said Brass. ‘Taverna’s infrastructure enabled us to develop the systematic analysis pipelines we required and to rapidly evolve the analysis as new data came into the project. We’re sharing these workflows so they can be re-used by other researchers looking at different disease models. This breakthrough demonstrates the real-life benefits of computer science and how a problem costing many lives can be tackled using pioneering E-Science systems.’

To bolster the findings, population geneticists from ILRI and the University of Dublin examined bovine genetic sequences for clues about the history of the different breeds. Their evidence confirmed that the two genes identified by the ILRI-Liverpool-Manchester groups were likely to have evolved in response to the presence of trypanosome parasites.

‘We believe the reason the N’Dama do not fall sick when infected with trypanosome parasites is that these animals, unlike others, have evolved ways to control the infection without mounting a runaway immune response that ends up damaging them,’ said lead author Harry Noyes, of the University of Liverpool. ‘Many human infections trigger similarly self-destructive immune responses, and our observations may point to ways of reducing such damage in people as well as livestock.’

This paper, said Kemp, in addition to advancing our understanding of the cascade of genes that allow Africa’s N’Dama cattle to fight animal trypanosomiasis, reaffirms the importance of maintaining as many of Africa’s indigenous animal breeds (as well as plant/crop varieties) as possible. The N’Dama’s disease resistance to trypanosome parasites is an example of a genetic trait that, while not yet fully understood, is clearly of vital importance to the continent’s future food security. But the continued existence of the N’Dama, like that of other native ‘niche’ African livestock breeds, remains under threat.

With this new knowledge of the genes controlling resistance to trypanosomiasis in the N’Dama, breeders could screen African cattle to identify animals with relatively high levels of disease resistance and furthermore incorporate the genetic markers for disease resistance with markers for other important traits, such as high productivity and drought tolerance, for improved breeding programs generally.

If further research confirms the significance of these genes in disease resistance, a conventional breeding program could develop a small breeding herd of disease-resistant cattle in 10–15 years, which could then be used over the next several decades to populate Africa’s different regions with animals most suited to those regions. Using genetic engineering techniques to achieve the same disease-resistant breeding herd, an approach still in its early days, could perhaps be done in four or five years, Kemp said. Once again, it would be several decades before such disease-resistant animals could be made available to most smallholder farmers and herders on the continent.

‘So it’s time we got started,’ said Kemp.

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See this news and related background material at ILRI’s online press room.

The International Livestock Research Institute (www.ilri.org) works with partners worldwide to help poor people keep their farm animals alive and productive, increase and sustain their livestock and farm productivity, and find profitable markets for their animal products. ILRI’s headquarters are in Nairobi, Kenya; we have a principal campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and 13 offices in other regions of Africa and Asia. ILRI is part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (www.cgiar.org), which works to reduce hunger, poverty, illness and environmental degradation in developing countries by generating and sharing relevant agricultural knowledge, technologies and policies. This research is focused on development, conducted by a Consortium (http://consortium.cgiar.org) of 15 CGIAR centres working with hundreds of partners worldwide, and supported by a multi-donor Fund (www.cgiarfund.org).

The University of Liverpool (www.liv.ac.uk) is a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive institutions in the UK. It attracts collaborative and contract research commissions from a wide range of national and international organizations valued at more than £110 million annually.

The University of Manchester (www.manchester.ac.uk), also a member of the Russell Group, is the largest single-site university in the UK. It has 22 academic schools and hundreds of specialist research groups undertaking pioneering multi-disciplinary teaching and research of worldwide significance. According to the results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, the University of Manchester is now one of the country’s major research universities, rated third in the UK in terms of ‘research power’. The university has an annual income of £684 million and attracted £253 million in external research funding in 2007/08.