More vaccination, not antibiotics, needed for Kenyan livestock—Straight talk by Sidai Chair Christie Peacock

Christie Peacock, founder and chair of Sidai Kenya Ltd. (photo credit: Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship).

This interview was conducted and written up by ILRI communications staff Paul Karaimu and Susan MacMillan.

The following interview of Christie Peacock was conducted at the February 2019 launch of the CGIAR Antimicrobial Resistance Hub, which is integrating research and development efforts in tackling antimicrobial resistance and is located at the Kenya-headquartered International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which hosts the hub. The interview has been lightly edited for the sake of brevity and clarity.

Christie Peacock is the founder and chair of Sidai Africa, Ltd., a Kenyan company that provides livestock services and crop inputs to farmers across the whole of Kenya. Started seven years ago, this social enterprise now reaches about 300,000 farmers on a regular basis, providing them with high-quality services, training and products.

A Sidai shop in Kenya (photo credit: Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship).

What antimicrobial resistance challenges does your company face?
Across the board, the antimicrobial challenges we face are huge issues. We assessed the quality of some antibiotics on the market in Kenya and found that at least 30% were substandard and under-strength. Another issue is the distribution network, which involves a lot of unqualified people and means that farmers can get hold of antibiotic/antimicrobial drugs easily and often. Without knowing how to use the drugs properly, many underdose their animals or don’t treat the animals for the period of time required for the drug to work. Members of some communities will jab a sick animal with a bit of antibiotic and if the next day it hasn’t got better, they’ll jab it with something else. This means that these livestock owners are not giving drugs the time to work. In fact, there’s a kind of ‘arms race’ of injectable drugs that are being used on animals, which ultimately often die with a cocktail of pharmaceutical products in their systems. So misunderstandings and misuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs are huge problems for animals here as well as for human health and nutrition.

What issues does your company face in selling livestock services and products?
We work hard to convince livestock farmers and herders to use the right product for the right ailment, to use the product correctly and then to wait to see the results of that treatment. We conduct and support a lot of training. We support lead farmers, for example, who demonstrate good practice that can be witnessed by their friends and neighbours. Even many professionals in Kenya fail to use veterinary products correctly. These animal health workers may have no diagnostic tools at their disposal; some won’t even have a thermometer or a stethoscope let alone a diagnostic test that they can apply or a laboratory where they can send their samples. So a lot of their diagnostic work is just educated guesswork. In these circumstances, what many professionals will try to do is to cover all bases by administering a cocktail of drugs in the hope that one of them will work. There’s also a commercial driver behind these treatments because professionals can make a lot of money selling injectable products and injecting animals during a farm visit. The profit margins on using those products are 30–50%, so the health workers can make good money selling injections when the cow or other animal they have been called to treat may not need that treatment.

Just how many animals die untimely deaths in Kenya?
A conservative estimate would be maybe 15–20% mortality every year. There’s estimated to be 4 to 5 billion dollars’ worth of livestock in this country, so you’re talking about many hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of livestock dying every year. I would estimate that probably 80% of those deaths could be prevented, mostly through timely vaccinations. Antibiotics are often used as a kind of shortcut attempt to fix underlying husbandry problems. Animals that are poorly fed get sick more often than well-fed animals. Unvaccinated animals get sick more often than vaccinated animals. Cows kept in dirty barns will be more susceptible to mastitis and will develop more diseases than cows kept in clean barns. Animals kept in poor conditions and contracting diseases will require antibiotics to treat them. Good housing and hygiene, adequate nutrition, routine vaccinations—these are the basic building blocks of a healthy and sustainable livestock farm.

What can the CGIAR Antimicrobial Resistance Hub do for a company like Sidai?
Well, it can help to inform Sidai staff about what’s actually going on. While in our work we witness various behaviours on the ground, some of these could be one-offs, anecdotal rather than systemic in nature. With more solid evidence about trends, we can pass along higher-quality information through our network. We’ve built an extensive and genuinely unique distribution network in Kenya. We now operate about 100 of our own shops and sell products to nearly 2,500 other stockists. So we reach a lot of people, and as much as we distribute products we also distribute knowledge. Having knowledge that we can get out to people that’s accurate, reliable and timely is hugely helpful to us and to our customers.

Does the CGIAR AMR Hub need information that Sidai can provide?
Staff of the AMR Hub would be very welcome to visit our work, to see the world at the grassroots level. What’s going on at this level is often not great. This regular injecting of cows with prescription medicines is not good for the animals who endure the treatments, is not good for the livestock farmers who have to pay for them and is not good for the consumers of milk and meat if those products carry antibiotic residues in them.

What have been the highlights of the launch of the CGIAR AMR Hub for you?
I think there’s growing public awareness about the rise and dangers of antimicrobial resistance. There are national plans now to control the development of antibiotic resistance, which we never had before, so that’s a good thing. There are three sides to this issue, all of which matter. There’s the human health problem—the terrifying rise of antibiotic resistance. There’s the animal health problem, which obviously is a big concern in Sidai’s work to help sustain livestock systems and farming for the benefit of people here in Kenya. And then there’s the crossover problem of pathogen resistance to disease arising in animals and spreading to people and vice versa. Unlike in Europe or North America, where food quality is tightly monitored, there’s consistent disease surveillance and there’s greater compliance with health regulations, there are a lot of informal channels here that are not subject to that kind of oversight. In addition, people here tend to live closely with their animals—sometimes they sleep in the same house—and this can enhance the transmission of zoonotic diseases between livestock and people and also, potentially, the development of antimicrobial resistance in the pathogens shared by animals and people. So here there’s more potential sorts of pathogen and disease transmission routes, I would guess.

Is both underuse and overuse of antibiotics a problem in Kenya?
In Kenya, it’s very easy to get hold of veterinary antibiotics and there’s widespread treatment of animals with antibiotics. I would say there’s also widespread overuse of antibiotics generally. Of course, many animals here also die because they don’t get treated with the right antibiotic at the right time or for the right period of time. Our big concern in Sidai are the low levels of routine vaccinations in Kenya. At the moment, vaccinations here are used mostly to control disease outbreaks rather than to prevent disease outbreaks. We’re having a big push, particularly now in northern Kenya, to demonstrate the efficacy of routine vaccination, particularly in goats, because goats here have very high mortality rates due mostly to caprine pleuropneumonia, for which there is a locally made effective vaccine.

Which are more expensive—vaccines or antibiotics?
It costs just 15 Kenya shillings to vaccinate a goat while to jab it with an antibiotic costs maybe 100 Kenya shillings. But vaccines are not yet commonly available in the country. So we’re working to make animal vaccines more available and accessible to people and to get people to see how useful routine vaccinations are. In Kenya’s northern drylands, which have been hit by recurring droughts, there’s been a history of emergency livestock interventions, with vaccination often carried out as part of that emergency program. In these crises, animals are often vaccinated when they’re malnourished and dehydrated and they may even die or abort as a result of the vaccination. It takes just one animal to die following a vaccination for the word to go around and people to stop wanting to vaccinate their animals.

In addition, there remain lots of barriers to accessing vaccines for ruminant animals (cattle, camels, goats and sheep). Poultry vaccines are much more accessible because vaccinating poultry is largely a private-sector activity. The government likes to maintain a level of control and oversight of ruminant vaccinations, which is fine, but the private sector is able to vaccinate animals very effectively. And it is, potentially, a big business. I’ve estimated that the veterinary pharmaceutical business in this country is about 40 million dollars a year and the vaccination business could be about 200 million dollars a year. Importantly, routine vaccination of the country’s ruminant herds could generate many more jobs than the current practice of treating individual animals once they fall ill. That, in my opinion, should be the focus of Kenya’s veterinary profession.

For more information, please visit the Sidai website and contacts page.

View this recent slide presentation by Christie Peacock: How the OIE PPP Guidelines can guide the greater involvement of the private sector in livestock disease control in Kenya, 7 Nov 2019.