Charities plan to save vast African cattle herd

Millions of domestic cows may be saved from a killer parasite that plagues at least 11 African countries if a new scheme to make a vaccine commercially available gets off the ground.

Currently as many as a million head of cattle succumb each year to East Coast fever (theileriosis), a tick-transmitted disease that persists in much of the continent, says a news statement by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), one of the organizations behind the campaign to mass-produce and distribute the vaccine.

NGS photo by W. Robert Moore

East Coast fever is a devastating cancer-like disease of cattle that often kills the animals within three weeks of infection, according to the DFID. It is caused by the single-celled parasite Theileria parva, which is transmitted by the brown ear tick (Rhipicephalus appendiculatus) as it feeds on cattle.

The disease was first recognized in southern Africa when it was introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century with cattle imported from eastern Africa, where the disease had been endemic for centuries, DFID said.

Calves are particularly susceptible to the disease.

Some 70 per cent of the human population of sub-Saharan Africa–around half a billion people–depend on livestock for their livelihoods, with farming and herding families relying on cattle for vital sources of food, income, traction, transportation and manure to fertilise croplands, according to the UK government agency.

“In herds kept by the pastoral Masai people, for example, the disease kills from 20 to over 50 per cent of all unvaccinated calves.”

“In herds kept by the pastoral Masai people, for example, the disease kills from 20 to over 50 per cent of all unvaccinated calves,” DFID said. “This makes it difficult and often impossible for the herders to plan for the future, to improve their livestock enterprises and thus to raise their standard of living.”


NGS photo of cattle herd in Tanzania by Joe Scherschel

With money provided by DFID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the private charity GALVmed is mass-producing and distributing the vaccine to protect cattle against East Coast fever. Based in Scotland and with offices in Africa, GALVmed is a global alliance of public, private and government partners, aiming to protect livestock and save human life by making livestock vaccines, diagnostics and medicines accessible and affordable.

The new livestock vaccination program “will ensure that the vaccine is made available, accessible and affordable to livestock keepers who need it most and to scale up its production for the future,” DFID said.

NGS photo of cattle farm near Mount Kenya by George F. Mobley

The immunization procedure–called “infection-and-treatment” because the animals are infected with whole parasites while being treated with antibiotics to stop development of disease–has proved highly effective, the DFID said.

The treatment procedure was developed over decades, but initial stocks of the vaccine produced in the 1990s recently ran low.

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), at the request of the African Union/Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources and chief veterinary officers in affected countries, produced one million doses of vaccine to replenish supplies. But now there is a need to create and ensure and sustainable production and distribution program of the vaccine..

“For the longer term it is critical that sustainable commercial systems for vaccine production, distribution and delivery are established,” DFID said.

“A smallholder dairy farmer can take years to recover economically from the death of a single milking cow.”

Said the UK’s International Development Minister Mike Foster, “Many Africans depend on the health of their cattle for milk, meat and as their only hard asset for trade and investment. A smallholder dairy farmer can take years to recover economically from the death of a single milking cow. That’s why it’s vital that every possible step is taken to ensure that these essential vaccine doses are sustainably produced, tested and made available to the people who need them.

“DFID is supporting GALVmed to explore ways of transferring the production and distribution of the vaccine into the private sector through local manufacturers and distributors. This is extremely important in making the vaccine affordable, accessible and–crucially–sustainable.”

Accessible to poor people

Said GALVmed CEO Steve Sloan, “The survival of cattle for the millions who live on tiny margins has a direct effect on quality of life and the dignity of choice and self-determination. Collaborating with ILRI and partners in the developing world, including governments and veterinary distributors and those from the private sector, GALVmed is working to embed the vaccine through registration in East African countries and to scale up its production so that it remains accessible to poor people.

ILRI veterinary scientist Henry Kiara, who has conducted research on the live vaccine for 20 years, said that ILRI is “looking forward to commercialising the production, distribution and delivery of the vaccine to the smallholder and emerging dairy producers as well as livestock herders” in this region of Africa.

“Now that all the building blocks are in place, thanks to past investments by DFID and others”, he says, “we are excited to be at a stage where this vaccine can take off.”

NGS photo by Volkmar K. Wentzel

East Coast Fever puts the lives of more than 25 million cattle at risk in the 11 countries where the disease is now endemic, and endangers a further 10 million animals in new regions such as southern Sudan, where the disease has been spreading at a rate of more than 30 kilometers [20 miles] a year. The vaccine could save the 11 affected countries at least £175 million [U.S.$280 million] a year, DFID said.

The disease persists in 11 countries in eastern, central and southern Africa–Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.


NGS photo of Masai cattle herder by Bruce Dale

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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn