Thursday, 18 April 2013

Eyes wide open: Australian vet student experiences the challenges of keeping healthy livestock in Laos

Early this year, Emma Roffey, a vet science student from University of Sydney had a rewarding and eye-opening experience in northern Laos, investigating an active disease outbreak in cattle and water buffalo. She visited 5 villages as part of Australian–Lao collaborative research aiming to reduce poverty through improved livestock health, production and marketing.
Emma vaccinating buffalo in Laos
(Image courtesy of DLF Staff)

Emma investigated an outbreak of haemorrhagic septicaemia (HS), a highly fatal disease of cattle and water buffaloes that is endemic in Laos but absent in Australia. The disease is prevented through vaccination, so Emma’s main task was to work with the local farmers to vaccinate remaining cattle and buffalo in the district where the outbreak had occurred.
Free-roaming cattle in Phoukune district, Laos.
(Image courtesy of Emma Roffey)

Emma found herself asking “Why are animals remaining unvaccinated when the potential impact (i.e. death) of these apparently important household assets is high?” 

After speaking with the farmers, she found the main reason farmers gave for their reluctance to vaccinate was the effort involved. Livestock freely roam the treacherous mountainous land, so vaccination can only be done by individually catching animals, which is both physically demanding and time consuming. Emma discovered this was no understatement— she spent days trekking through “numerous river crossings, heavily overgrown, narrow paths, rocky terrain and incredibly steep mountains that caused even the fit Laos farmers to gasp for breath…I was exhausted!”.
A woman with her child trekking to the location where cows and buffalo were to be vaccinated.
(Image courtesy of Emma Roffey)

Other reasons given for reluctance to vaccinate included lack of concern about the disease, and the belief that vaccination would cause abortion. Some farmers were using incorrect methods to prevent the disease. Emma observed how the research staff explained the biosecurity risks to farmers, so that most then understood the benefits of vaccinating and consented to being part of the program.
Emma with a farmer, in a holding yard she helped to construct.
(Image courtesy of DLF staff)

Apart from the physical challenges involved and the generally limited understanding of biosecurity, Emma also noted that lack of running water, electricity and suitable equipment made disease management difficult. On top of this, some farmers weren’t compliant with quarantine restrictions— they were scared their sick stock would die and sold them at much reduced prices in the hope of salvaging some value. This issue was clearly sensitive for the project staff to deal with, but they successfully explained to the farmers that they were endangering other animals by disobeying movement restrictions and that vaccination would help protect animals in the district.

Emma says “I have utmost respect for the way that the staff interacted with the villagers. They were able to resolve difficult issues without confrontation by showing that they cared about the community.” Despite all the hurdles, Emma saw that many farmers had adopted advice and were reaping the benefits.

“One farmer beamed with pride as he showed us the holding yard he had built and how much heavier and healthier his animals were after the disease prevention and nutrition training he received,” Emma says.

Was it all worth the effort for Emma? She definitely thinks so. “The farmers thanked us sincerely after we finished vaccinating and we were sent off with warm wishes and smiles. This field trip has been an amazing experience that I will never forget.”

A village in Phoukune district, Laos
(Image courtesy of Emma Roffey)

This research includes ACIAR project AH/2006/159 and focuses on building the capacity of Lao farmers and government staff (in the Department of Livestock and Fisheries, DLF). On the other side of the coin, it provides invaluable opportunities for Australian students to gain first-hand experience of a disease outbreak investigation in a developing country, and to learn about traditional rural farming methods.

"How now, Lao cow"
(Image courtesy of Emma Roffey)
Dozens of students have visited and will continue to visit Lao beyond the life of the project, largely due to the networks that have been built. Project Leader Prof Peter Windsor (University of Sydney) says “This work provides an important example of the critical role ACIAR and its implementing partners play in regional research in the Mekong Region.”

Dr Syseng Khounsey, the in-country research leader also remarked “Having Australian students involved in field operations increases the smallholder farmers’ interest, so provides benefits to the project’s implementation efforts as well as experience for the students.” It’s a win for both countries

Authored by Dr Wendy Henderson, ACIAR Science Communicator


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