Monday, 11 January 2016

Progressing foot-and-mouth disease control in South-East Asia — a first step

The Mekong Livestock Research team from the Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Sydney, has been conducting livestock research in Cambodia and Laos for nearly ten years. The work has been funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and undertaken in collaboration with lead partners in the Department of Livestock and Fisheries in Laos and the Department of Animal Health and Production in Cambodia.

Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is of particular interest as it is a major trade and production-limiting disease in South-East Asia and beyond. We are working to reduce the impact of FMD, enabling the growth of livestock markets and ultimately helping to alleviate rural poverty and improve food security in rural communities. FMD is considered Australia’s biggest biosecurity risk. A recent ABARES economic analysis concluded that a large outbreak of FMD in Australia could cost more than $50 billion dollars over 10 years. Reducing and eventually eliminating the risk of an incursion of FMD from South-East Asia is an important strategy to reducing the risk of such a catastrophe.

It is not unusual for Cambodian farmers to tell us that their cattle and buffalo are affected by FMD every other year. That’s not surprising given the limited control of animal movements, low rates of vaccination, and limited understanding of livestock biosecurity — ideal conditions for the spread of one of the most infectious of all animal disease agents. When cattle become infected, they often get vesicles (blisters) that rupture to form ulcers on their tongues, feet and teats. This makes eating, walking and feeding calves painful, and affected animals lose weight and some (generally a small percentage) die. If the animal survives, it takes many months to regain lost weight and females may not get in calf for an extended period. In rural villages, where farmers store their wealth as livestock assets, the loss of cattle weight and value means household savings are regularly compromised by FMD.

Losses from FMD may also include significant costs from attempts to treat affected animals. FMD is caused by a virus and is not susceptible (as bacteria are) to treatment with antibiotics. However, expensive antibiotics are often misused to ‘treat’ affected animals, adding to the drain on household finances. We have major concerns about the widespread misuse of antibiotics during FMD outbreaks as large-scale outbreaks can affect tens of thousands of cattle, buffalo, pigs and goats. There is a risk that this could lead to antibiotics entering the food chain, posing a food safety threat. There is also a risk of development of antibiotic resistance, an issue recently highlighted by the World Health Organization’s World Antibiotic Awareness Week, 16–22 November 2015.

In 2015, we commenced our project on ‘Village-based biosecurity for livestock disease risk management in Cambodia’. This involves a longitudinal study in 16 project villages. The research team will visit these sites twice a year to survey smallholder farmers and record production and health measures from their cattle. Measures will include weighing cattle (the scales are hidden under the straw), vaccinating for FMD and haemorrhagic septicaemia (an important bacterial disease of cattle and buffalo in the region), and recording their body condition score, reproductive status (whether they have calved) and other events, including if they have been affected by any diseases. We will also carry out extension activities to train farmers in improved biosecurity and animal husbandry, including growing and feeding forages. The information will be used to support 'scaling out' of interventions, by government and donor organisations, and to inform policy development.

Secure animal identification is critical to animal research and disease control programs. The attached image is of a demonstration to local project staff, veterinary officers and farmers, of how to apply an ear-tag. This is not currently practised in Cambodia, mainly due to a belief that farmers won’t accept it. A farmer led each animal into a makeshift crush and onto the scales. The farmer held the animal with the rope and head halter that is commonly used to lead and restrain cattle in Cambodia. This provided just enough restraint to insert the double-sided ear-tag for identification. The tags were kindly supplied at no cost by Zee Tags in support of the research. The veterinary officer (on the left, with the yellow apron) then injected the FMD vaccine after the ear-tag was inserted. Other farmers with their cattle are lined up to go next. They have brought in their cattle from across the village to participate in this research project following recruitment from provincial staff.
 

Initiating the longitudinal study in Battambang, in north-west Cambodia in October 2015.
 
By early afternoon we had completed tagging, weighing and vaccinating cattle in the first village. This was a really satisfying moment and, despite the heat and humidity, everybody was smiling. We demonstrated that a village vaccination drive can be completed with high levels of farmer engagement in an area with minimal animal restraint and where ear tags have never been used before. Sure, we have many more steps to take, including improving animal restraint and farmers’ knowledge of biosecurity; but for now, it’s an important first step in the right direction.
 
For more details on the Mekong Livestock Research team’s activities and team contacts, see www.mekonglivestock.wordpress.com
 
By James Young

Where trade names are used this constitutes neither endorsement of nor discrimination against any product by ACIAR.

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