HORN: Unleashing the Power of Collaboration in One Health Research for the Horn of Africa
Critical research on One Health issues is not often done in the regions where it is most needed. One initiative changed this.
‘It is widely recognized that the Horn of Africa exhibits a close functional interface between humans, animals and the environment’, says Mirgissa Kaba, Associate Professor at Addis Ababa University. ‘As such, One Health research in this part of the world can improve the wellbeing of the humans, animals and the ecosystem at large.’
Knowledge sharing and capacity development are essential for advancing scientific knowledge, particularly in research that directly impacts livelihoods. One Health is a critical research area for the Horn of Africa, where the health and well-being of people are intricately linked to the health of animals and the environment. Livestock play a vital role in the region, with many people relying heavily or entirely on it for their livelihoods. Currently, livestock accounts for over 60% of agricultural GDP in the region, but also contributes to disease transmission, affecting people’s health, nutrition and overall well-being. Additionally, climate change has made drought and flooding recurrent, threatening livelihoods. Research in One Health can enhance human and animal health and livestock production in the Horn of Africa, improving food systems, nutrition, resilience, disease control and the environment.
That’s where the One Health Regional Network for the Horn of Africa (HORN) comes in. Five years ago, the University of Liverpool spearheaded HORN, funded by the UK Research and Innovation’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), to establish a network of individuals and organisations across the Horn of Africa (including the countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia/Somaliland) capable of conducting high-quality research on the link between people’s health and wealth and that of livestock and the environment. HORN is unique among One Health initiatives in East Africa including Eritrea and Somalia, countries which are particularly under-represented in One Health research.
‘The countries of the Horn of Africa are diverse yet face shared infectious diseases in humans and animals. HORN aimed to promote collaboration among regional scientists to tackle these common challenges. For instance, a HORN-funded project on anthrax united scientists from Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somaliland and Somalia to map the disease. Despite logistical and financial hurdles, HORN events consistently brought together individuals from multiple countries, proving to be essential and rewarding,’ Matthew Baylis, Principal Investigator of the HORN project and Oxenhale Chair of Veterinary Epidemiology, Institute of Infection, Veterinary and Ecological Sciences, University of Liverpool.
HORN tackled the challenge systematically, focusing on capacity building for both individuals and institutions in research. The initiative comprised several components, including institutional research capability assessments and action plans, support of scientists through training, seed funding for research projects, and the creation of a regional network.
Teams collaborate at the sandpit workshop
Students listen to a lecture at the summer school
Students learn new One Health skills in the masterclass
Students learning essential skills at the summer school
Oloitoktok Lab before refurbishment
The new Oloitoktok Lab
Up-close in the Oloitoktok Lab
The Borama science meeting and signing of the declaration
Building capacity of institutions and individuals
At the outset, HORN collaborated closely with individual institutions to conduct comprehensive capacity assessments, identifying existing strengths and weaknesses in research capabilities. The outcomes of these assessments were used to develop tailored action plans addressing infrastructure and process deficiencies. Addis Ababa University elected to procure equipment, such as microscopes and smartboards, to enhance the teaching and participation of remote examiners. At the same time, the Hamelmalo College of Agriculture in Eritrea rehabilitated its existing veterinary laboratory. The Sheikh Technical Veterinary School in Somaliland/Somalia elected to make laboratory equipment purchases and improve internet connection and server infrastructure.
Refurbishing the Oloitoktok Laboratory – Kajiado County, Kenya
As part of the research capacity assessment at the University of Nairobi, the HORN project funded the complete refurbishment of the Oloitoktok Laboratory, located in Kajiado County, Kenya and the purchase of laboratory equipment to turn the space into a lab for One Health research and as an crucial space for diagnosing animal diseases in southern Kenya.
Local contractors refurbished the site and provided plumbing and electrical services. Laboratory equipment was purchased and shipped from the UK and a local Kenyan supplier did the refurbishment of the space.
Through these efforts, the lab is now fully functioning, acting as a space for research in the country. PhD students and post-grads conduct critical research in One Health and the lab serves as an important service for the community. The University of Nairobi has trained front-line animal health workers to identify disease syndromes in the area’s livestock and link them to the lab diagnostic testing. Veterinarians are then able to take samples and diagnose animal diseases.
Dismas Ongore, Professor of Public Health at the University of Nairobi, notes the importance of this laboratory for both the university and the community at large. It offers a unique opportunity for diagnosis and surveillance of common domestic and wildlife zoonotic disease and provides training to the local community and researchers.
Mapping the liver fluke (Fasciola hepatica) Distribution in Butajira and Gilgel Gibe, Ethiopia – A slimy One Health issue
Fascioliasis, a parasitic infection caused by the common liver fluke, is a disease that is spread from sheep or cattle to humans, through the intermediary host of freshwater snails. Scientists at the School of Public Health in Addis Ababa and Jimma University, Ethiopia set out to investigate freshwater snails' abundance, distribution and infections status, and the prevalence of human and animal fasciolosis in two health and demographic surveillance sites in Ethiopia. Through the funding received from the sandpit competition, the scientists were able to make significant findings on this major One Health issue.
The studies underscored the importance of comprehending snail distributions and infection patterns to implement strategies for preventing and controlling the disease effectively. These findings emphasized the necessity of land-use planning and safeguarding aquatic habitats against pollution and human activities. Furthermore, the research revealed that approximately 0.5-1% of the human population suffered from fasciolosis, while the disease affected 29% of cattle and sheep, along with 6% of goats. Lead researcher, Samson Wakuma, from the School of Public Health, Addis Ababa University, also pointed out that the results highlighted a need for more public awareness campaigns regarding the disease. Future research endeavors should prioritize education and its community-wide impacts.
Beyond infrastructure, HORN focused on enhancing the capacity of scientists. Post-doctoral positions were created and filled, with the University of Nairobi amending institutional bylaws to accommodate them. Other universities took softer approaches, providing support and resources to individual fellows to undertake a research project alongside their other academic responsibilities.
Research workshops, known as ‘sandpits’, were also organized, bringing together multidisciplinary teams to brainstorm research ideas, develop a proposal and eventually pitch them to a funding panel to secure resources for project implementation. Researchers were mentored from design to delivery and publication of these co-created projects, which were organized around the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including zero hunger (SDG2) and health and well-being (SDG3). They later addressed the pressing challenge posed by COVID-19.
A summer school in the field – 5 days at the Mpala Research Conservancy
The first One Health Summer Field School of the HORN Project took place at the Mpala Research Conservancy in central Kenya from the 11th to 15th of March 2019. The purpose was to provide intensive training for early career scientists from the Horn of Africa in various interdisciplinary skills related to One Health implementation.
The summer school introduced attendees to various skills necessary for multidisciplinary projects. It focused on ‘in the field’ data collection, analysis and processing. Daily sessions centered around specific themes led by experts, including vector biology, microclimate, animal health and natural ecologies.
One example of a training session was studying animal health, where participants learned about sample design and field data collection for prevalence surveys and participatory epidemiology for understanding states of domestic animal health. They were provided with a scenario on a vector-borne disease in cattle, then travelled to a village to collect data, and then were asked to process and analyse the results.
In addition to thematic sessions, there were opportunities to develop soft skills relevant to scientific research, such as critical appraisal for scientific papers, CV writing, poster design, scientific presentations and data organization.
‘The summer school was an amazing opportunity to be immersed in a landscape with students and realise how elements of that landscape were linked in so many ways, culminating in an extraordinary learning and teaching experience,’ said Eric Fevre, Research Lead for Kenya hub of the HORN project, Professor of Veterinary Infectious Diseases and Global Health at the University of Liverpool and joint appointee at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
Throughout the project, HORN placed significant emphasis on training and capacity development. Participants gained training through various methods, including online self-paced training modules that covered case studies on One Health in the region and in-person masterclasses in relevant technical areas such as epidemiology, microbiology and qualitative methods. They also acquired generic and transferable skills such as proposal writing and presentation skills, even during the pandemic when in-person gatherings were impossible. Additionally, a hands-on Summer School, provided participants with a five-day immersive experience in the research process. The program focused on various aspects of One Health research, including methods for studying human, animal and environmental factors.
Joining forces for an interconnected scientific network
HORN also facilitated networking opportunities among academics in the region, fostering interactions and knowledge sharing. Towards the end of the project, a science meeting was organized in Borama, Somaliland, which led to the formation of the Borama Declaration. This commitment by universities to collaborate and coordinate through One Health initiatives was a significant milestone, highlighting the importance of South-South collaboration and leadership. ‘The Borama Declaration is a significant milestone for the Horn of Africa. Twenty-four principals signed and agreed to enhance knowledge and experience sharing, strengthen South-South collaboration, research and training capacity building and improve community engagement and advocacy for One Health,’ said Yusuf Abdi Hared, Director for the Center of Research and Community Services at Amoud University.
As the project drew to a close in late 2022, additional funding was secured through a block grant funding allocation to the University of Liverpool which aimed to increase the impact of HORN further. In this phase, HORN leveraged its network to deliver a One Health Zoonotic Disease Prioritization workshop for Somalia in collaboration with the World Health Organization's Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean (WHO-EMRO). The achievements and momentum generated during the Borama meeting were further affirmed through a move to formally establish a network of 20+ universities in the region. A strategic plan and constitution document were created, serving as a blueprint for further collaboration and coordination.
‘Although the funding has ended, the initiative lives on in the form of a blossoming, multi-national network devoted to One Health in the region’ says Siobhan Mor, Research Lead for Ethiopia hub of the HORN project, Reader in One Health at the University of Liverpool and joint appointee at ILRI. ‘The journey of HORN has been marked by dedication, partnership and the power of collaboration.’
Through its South-South approach, HORN has brought together diverse institutions and researchers to address complex health challenges in the Horn of Africa. By fostering regional networks, empowering individuals and institutionalizing One Health principles, HORN has laid a strong foundation for continued progress and improved regional health and well-being.
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