The poverty that many women suffer in the developing world is no laughing matter, but tackling a deadly livestock disease could help. Michael Baron explains.

Michael Baron

On June 22 this year a number of UK celebrities, including Cilla Black, Cherie Blair, Rajashree Birla and Baroness Floella Benjamin, drew attention to International Widows’ Day by walking a small herd of goats across London Bridge.

The link between these two groups (the widows and the goats, rather than the celebrities) is poverty. Widows are among the poorest households in developing countries where there are no benefit systems to provide income support or pensions.

The choice of goat-herding for the event highlighted how important goats are in maintaining and supporting the lowest income groups in many such countries. Where cattle are the purview of those with land (mostly men), in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and India, goats and sheep are looked after by the women and contribute directly to family subsistence and health.

NGOs working in these areas often use donations of goats, and training in husbandry, to empower and raise the economic status of women. Goats are extremely efficient and unfussy in their use of forage, and can be productive even in peri-urban areas. They provide milk for the children, fertilizer for use (or sale), while trading kids can provide a cash income even for a family with no land of their own. (See this blog post from the Pro-Poor Livestock Policy Initiative about their environmental impact).

It’s all about the kids

All that effort, however, can come to nothing if the animals get sick and die.

Unfortunately, there are a plenty of diseases affecting these small animals, and their impact can be severe. I have written for this blog before about peste des petits ruminants (PPR, aka ‘goat plague’), a disease of goats and sheep that has been spreading apparently inexorably through sub-Saharan Africa as well as Asia.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recently completed a detailed study of the economic impact of PPR during a major outbreak in Kenya, showing that poor and middle-income families were reduced to destitution level by the loss of their goats to the disease. Another outbreak of PPR was reported recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), killing at least 75,000 animals with thousands more slaughtered in an effort to halt spread of the disease.

The sad thing is that PPR is quite easily controlled by vaccination.  The vaccine itself is cheap – less than 10p per dose – and the same can be said for vaccines against other goat/sheep diseases, such as goatpox.

Information is king

What is lacking in many cases is the infrastructure to detect and report the disease outbreaks in a timely fashion. For example, we have known from unofficial reports that PPR has been circulating for several years in the DRC, but this outbreak was the first to be officially reported. We also need reliable distribution systems to get the vaccines to the villages and the small livestock keepers that need them.

Mass vaccination, in the long term, is impractical, so we need to know more about the patterns of animal breeding and movement in these countries, and we need to involve the livestock keepers themselves in disease control, too. This way, vaccination can be applied in the most efficient manner and the livestock keepers given the right help to adapt their practices to limit the spread of disease.

At the March 2012 first meeting of the Global PPRV Research Alliance (sponsored by BBSRC) there was general recognition that the right things were being done to improve vaccines and diagnostics, such as pen-side tests to enable vets to check for PPR in the field without having to wait for samples to be sent back to a central laboratory.

But all of this would be of little help if we did not improve our knowledge of the way goats and sheep are kept and traded in different countries, and how best to apply vaccines and surveillance to get the maximum benefit.

It is hoped that the next few years will see greater effort going into the ‘socio-ecology’ of small ruminant livestock keeping, laying the groundwork for a major effort to eliminate PPR (which I discuss in this video) and possibly other diseases, much as we did with rinderpest.

About Michael Baron

Michael Baron has worked on the basic biology of rinderpest and PPR at the Institute for Animal Health for the last 20 years and is currently Research Leader of the Paramyxo and Bunyavirus Group. He is currently working to develop rapid pen-side diagnostics and improved vaccines for PPRV, as well as studying the basic biology of the virus.

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