Kenyan pastoralists key in eradicating cow plague

The buy-in by Kenyan pastoralists into the eradication of the deadly rinderpest disease was instrumental in bringing a permanent end to the disease, according to the International Science Journal. On taking up the cause, the pastoralists achieved higher than 80 per cent herd immunisation in a week, which represented far higher levels than previously achieved by veterinarians.

It was an engagement that has ended a disease that was capable of knocking out half a herd or more within days.

As part of a public-private-community partnership that lasted eighteen months, scientists working on the eradication of rinderpest, especially in Africa, led by ILRI’s Jeffrey Mariner, who is also credited with inventing  the temperature-stable rinderpest vaccine,trained local pastoralists who were willing to travel on foot and able to work in remote areas—on how to deliver the new vaccine.

The pastoralists carried the vaccine from herd to herd, immunizing all the cattle in their communities.
The local herders performed  better than veterinarians in the proportion of herds immunised, to such a degree that the result was the eradication of a disease that had plagued most of the world for millennia. The pastoralists were not only good at delivering the vaccine, but also knew more about the disease and how to stop it than many of the experts.

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“We soon discovered that the livestock owners knew more than anyone, including government officials, researchers and veterinarians, where outbreaks were occurring. It was their expertise about the sizes of cattle herds, their location, seasonal movement patterns and optimal time for vaccination that made it possible for us to eradicate rinderpest,” said Mariner.
Based on their immense expertise about migratory patterns and in recognizing early signs of infection, the herders were able to pinpoint, well before scientists ever could, where some of the final outbreaks were occurring and where conventional surveillance activities like weekly livestock dips had failed to disclose disease.

Harnessing this knowledge of rinderpest through “participatory surveillance” of outbreaks, combined with the animal health workers' delivery of vaccination, proved to be the most successful approach to monitoring and controlling the disease, according to the researchers.
“It effectively removed the disease from some of the hardest to reach areas, and most disease ridden communities,” said Mariner.

Adu Ojok, one of the pastoralists involved in the vaccination,attributes the success to having learnt the hard way how to deal with the disease. For the two decades he has practiced pastoralism he has lost over 200 cows, the majority through Rinderpest. “But we struggled with many cures and even the government appeared at times to have been overwhelmed by the constant outbreaks. We were also very disadvantaged since the vaccines that existed then were heat sensitive and before veterinarians could reach all pastoralists the vaccines would have lost potency since the heat here is unbearable,” said Ojok.
Years of trying to understand the disease saw them learn prevention measures, for example,when a cow is infected it had to be taken far into the forest, tied and left to die. “The disease is highly contagious and can spread to other livestock in a matter of minutes and wipe the whole herd. In 2010, in my village, we lost about 2000 cows in 3 days. It's that serious,” he said.
However, while livestock and those who depend on them for food, transportation and economic stability are now safe from one major calamity, with scientists now certain that the disease is no longer present in Africa, the pastoralists continue to be plagued by a number of other dangerous and debilitating diseases. like goat plague.

But it is now believed that the model of intervention used for rinderpest, of working with the pastoralists, may assist scientists in the road to eradication of other major diseases.

Rinderpest, known as "cattle plague" in English, is thought to have had its origin in the dense cattle herds of Central Eurasia more than two millennia ago and subsequently spread through warfare and trade to cattle in Europe, Asia and eventually Africa. Caused by a virus related to measles, rinderpest could infect cows, water buffalos and other cloven-hoofed animals, leading to a high fever, severe diarrhea, then dehydration and emaciation. The pathogen could kill 90 per cent of a herd, wiping out an entire farm’s livestock in just a matter of days.

While rinderpest is not dangerous to human health, its impact on humanity has been significant. Its path of destruction has been linked to many history-changing events such as the fall of the Roman Empire,the French Revolution and famines throughout Africa since the 19th century. Indeed, nearly three-quarters of the rural poor and some one-third of the urban poor depend on livestock for their food,income, traction, manure or other services.

In Africa, livestock provides poor households with up to half their income and between 6 and 35 per cent of their protein consumption. The loss of a single milking animal can affect a family’s economic health,as well as depriving it of a primary source of nutrition.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter