Data system to tame animal to human diseases

A project to reduce incidences of diseases transmitted from animals to humans is in the offing in Kisumu at a time when poor animal handling methods is being blamed for the rising cases of such diseases.

According to a study titled Occurrence of risk factors for zoonotic diseases in Kisumu City, the poor farming practices and lack of knowledge has for long put farmers at risk of contracting animal diseases. According to the report 79 percent of farmers in Kisumu slaughter their cows at home while 66 percent slaughter their pigs at home with no inspection, exposing them to disease transmission.

It is behind this turn of events that the University of Liverpool received funding to start a surveillance program to reduce the incidence of diseases transmitted between people and livestock in western Kenya.

The Sh430 million grant will train veterinary and medical technicians to monitor farms, markets and slaughterhouses. They will use a mobile data collection system to generate a comprehensive database of the prevalence and economic impact of these diseases. The information generated will be used to provide evidence for government health policy in the area.

The area around Lake Victoria is among the most densely populated in East Africa and its population is still growing rapidly. To meet increasing local demand for milk, meat and eggs, many livestock farmers are ‘intensifying’ their subsistence farming methods.

But livestock here carry many diseases, called zoonoses, that are transmitted to humans from animals. This has led to outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis, Rift Valley fever, brucellosis and anthrax, but there is little data on which livestock are infected and by which diseases and some meat companies are introducing a blanket ban on products from this area.

Eric Fèvre, an epidemiologist in the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Infection and Global Health who works jointly with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in Kenya, explained, “Kenya is experiencing radical change in the way it produces meat for its growing population. However, the system for checking the quality and safety of this meat is not equipped to deal with the pace of change. This has a major impact on public health that is only going to grow as the population expands.”

The Liverpool-led study will test 7,500 livestock and 6,000 humans for 14 diseases by training officials to visit markets, slaughterhouses and healthcare facilities. By the end of the project, a population of 1.5 million will be covered. The 5-year project will closely involve the Kenyan government’s Zoonotic Disease Unit, leaving a trained group of technicians, a comprehensive dataset and sample selection and the framework for a national surveillance system that can be adopted in future.

“There is a lot of science behind how diseases are controlled and managed, but very little science around how to best do undertake surveillance. Our strategy is not to develop a completely new system but to strengthen and integrate surveillance work for zoonotic diseases,” noted Eric Fèvre.