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LIDC Podcast: Improving Animal Health in East Africa

Four vets describe the challenges affecting livestock in East Africa, including anthrax and climate change, in the latest episode of Development Matters. Dr Ezra Saitoti and Dr Paul Chacha, both from the charity Vetaid, Dr Musiany Kisipan, of University of Nairobi, and Bev Panto, of the Royal Veterinary College, explain strategies to address these problems, including an exciting project using mobile phones to monitor animal disease. The interview also focuses on the potential for online learning by veterinary students, and the increased likelihood of diseases jumping the species barrier from animals to humans (zoonotic diseases).

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Challenges for traditional pastoralist communities
Large areas of arid land in East Africa are home to pastoralists who own cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys. Saitoti details the effects climatic factors such as drought have on these communities in Kenya, including forced movement across borders, and reduced animal populations. In semi-arid areas of Tanzania, goats and sheep are more commonly kept. Chacha discusses the success of VetAid in introducing poultry to these communities, which is a more sustainable alternative to livestock, particularly in times of drought and famine.

Livestock is "the life of the pastoralist community" according to Saitoti. Its viewed as an essential part of pastoralist culture, a source of food, income and prestige, as well as an important insurance policy in times of emergency. However, as Chacha notes, this is threatened by many modern realities, including the deadly cattle disease East Coast Fever, which "causes the death of more than 50% of calves that are born". Alongside this risk are new strains of goat disease,  poor accessibility to livestock health services, and the increased risk of zoonotic diseases. He describes his work with VetAid to tackle these difficulties by training local community-based animal health workers. Saitoti mentions that “it used to cost about 700 Kenyan shillings – that’s about £12, to immunise one animal, but after the impact of the drought, lots of pastoralists lost livestock, meaning their base capital was threatened. So what VetAid did was acquire funds to subsidise this cost by almost a half, it now costs around 400 shillings”.

Using mobile technology to promote animal health
Chacha also discusses the use of donated GPS-enabled Google Android phones for data collection and disease surveillance. The satellite technology allows vets to communicate more effectively by instantly sending pictures and data about diseases, enabling serious outbreaks and new diseases to be quickly identified. This information has the potential to help contain diseases in one area, preventing their geographical spread and saving many animals.

A pilot study using mobile phones to monitor the spread of East Coast Fever in Zanzibar was conducted by students from the Royal Veterinary College in 2009. Based on these experiences, Panto explains the practicality and convenience of using mobile phones over paper-based records to record and send out data.

Online learning
Kisipan talks about furthering veterinary research in collaboration with the RVC, especially sharing online resources for students. Panto, who visiited Kenya as part of the Students as Global Citizens project (led by IoE and LIDC), also discusses the benefits of technology in the classroom. Video footage of interviews with Kenyan professors has been used in classes with UK students to teach about development issues, the wider international role of vets, and to demonstrate the issues facing farmers and pastoralists in East Africa. Interview material has also been used to make podcasts and educational resources for VetAid’s community animal health workers, while the datacard facility on Google Android phones is a useful store for educational resources.

Shared animal and human diseases
In the last five years, zoonotic viruses such as bird and swine flu have proved to be major global concerns. Chacha refers to rapidly rising population growth, which will intensify interactions between animals and humans, and which must be surveyed and managed better to prevent the risk of serious threats.

By Tanbir Johal, work experience placement student at LIDC and MSc student at Birmingham University