Friday, 24 February 2012

Helping the Masai farmers when the pop stars have all gone

It is a little after dawn in the Masai district of Engarenaibor in northwestern Tanzania. Amid a prehistoric landscape of rolling grassland and acacia trees, Paolo Lemorongo, a farmer, is rounding up cows, so that his visitors can see for themselves the tiny yellow tags that have been attached to each animal's ear. The tag signifies an animal inoculated against the deadly Ndigana kali, better known as East Coast fever.

"Before the vaccination became available, most of my animals died," says Mr Lemorongo. "If the cows delivered 80 calves, only five would survive. Of course, when vets first brought the treatment here somepeople were suspicious, but when they saw that so many animals survived, suddenly everyone wanted it."

Mr Lemorongo, whose home is a four-hour drive by Land Rover from Arusha, the nearest city, is understandably delighted to be the beneficiary of a ground-breaking aid project, developed byGalvmed (Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicines). This Edinburgh-based charity was founded five years ago with the aim of halting East Coast fever and 12 other deadly livestock diseases that lay waste to millions of animals every year across the African continent andthroughout the developing world.

It seems an unfeasibly large ambition. In the Masai communities of Engarenaibor, disease has for generations been a brutal fact of life for farmers such as Mr Lemorongo. In the good times cattle represent the food and currency he needs for his own survival. Cows supply the rich, untreated milk that is the staple diet here; when there is a surplus of healthy animals, some can be sold at market to provide the funds to send his children to school. But should the cattle die, whole communities will be impoverished.

In recent years, the statistics have made grim reading. It is calculated that in East Africa, 1.1 million cattle succumb annually to Ndigana kali — a tick-borne disease that infects the lymph glands and causes high fever— with only three per cent of calves surviving into adulthood. Yet here in Engarenaibor there has been a 95 per cent reduction in deaths from the disease since the vaccine was introduced.

It is just a beginning. Last Thursday in Arusha in the presence of government ministers andofficials from Tan-zania, Uganda, Kenya and Malawi, Galvmed formally launched its new international campaign against East Coast fever, taking the battle across all four countries, with the willing support of all the governments concerned. The charity was able to confirm that "disease action plans" were being drawn up to tackle swine fever and other killers that destroy huge populations of pigs; to combat sheep and goat pox and Rift valley fever, fatal to smaller animals;and to defeat the infections that kill poultry.

These programmes — designed to be enacted over a decade—represent a fundamental shift in the provision of aid to the developing world. Instead of the crisis management of famine or flood, with all its pop records and television appeals, Galvmed is creating a permanent continent-wide framework that will preserve livestock, and protect the communities who rely on their animals for their very livelihoods. The audacious scale of the project has been enough to convince the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to contribute £17 million in support. The UK Government's Department for International Development has contributed a further £7 million.

In a statement to coincide with the international launch of the vaccine, Gregg BeVier, senior programme officer of agricultural development, for the Gates Foundation, heaped praise on the charity. "GALVmed and its partners should feel great pride in this important achievement," he said. "We hope this success will drive additional investment and innovation to benefit those who depend on livestock, and help them build better lives."

The week's good news should not be allowed to divert attention from the long struggle to overcome livestock diseases, according to Dr Hameed Nuru, an Edinburgh-trained vet, who worked extensively for the African Union before he became Galvmed's senior director of policy andexternal affairs.

Dr Nuru deplores the fact that although many livestock diseases have long been treatable, a mixture of Byzantine bureaucracy, prohibitive cost and political short-sightedness has stymied progress. The statistics speak for themselves, he says. Agricultural aid represents just five per cent of the total aid budget in Africa, but over 30 years that still amounts to a staggering £1.25 trillion.

So why are there so few signs of a long-term improvement? "I ask myself, what is the food status of Africa, why do children keep going hungry?" he snaps. "There is good leadership in the African Union, we have people who are very switched on—but the logistics do not keep up with changing times, and there is a very bureaucratic set-up. People of talent do not move through quickly enough and by the time they emerge at the top of the ladder, they have lost the initiative. What is the point of putting so much money in if so little changes?"

By contrast, Dr Nuru insists, Galvmed approaches problems on a continental scale. It is not a question of ignoring international boundaries, but of bringing different governments into play to ensure the vaccination campaign does not stop at border checkpoints.

Crucially the charity has successfully lobbied the pharmaceutical industry, expediting the production of expensive drugs and persuading huge multinationals to live with lower returns. At grassroots level that means the creation of pharmaceutical supply chains to ensure vets andpara-vets are supplied with the vaccines they need to tackle diseases, and profit from their work. Mr Lemorongo paid 10,000 shillings (£5) for each vaccine he bought this year, in the knowledge that a healthy calf will yield him 70 times as much at market — and his good fortune bounces back along the economic chain.

Last week, there were real hopes that Ndigana kali will finally be defeated, and that, like so many skittles, the other diseases will tumble. Yet, for all their hard work in fostering animal welfare, there are some problems that remain utterly intractable for Galvmed. In 2009, the rains never came to Engarenaibor and famine devastated the local herds: thousands of cattle died.

The consequence are all too apparent at the village school, where just nine teachers are responsible for 700 local children. In a formal presentation to a Galvmed delegation, Anna Remi Nchira, the headmistress, explains, with great dignity, the problems she faces.

The essence of her speech is this: because the rains never came, no one could make money by selling cattle; as a result there was no money in the community and the school could not build new classrooms or accommodation for additional teachers; and because there was no accommodation, the government would not send more teachers to the village. "Can your organisation help us?" Mrs Remi Nchira asks.

Stuart Brown, a Galvmed official, responds in the best way, by telling the truth. He says: "Our organisation is focused on the vaccine for Ndgina Kali, and other diseases, and we know it will benefit the pastoralists in the future. It is important for us not to make promises we can't keep but to concentrate on what we do best. What I can assure you is that we will pass on your messageand always advocate your cause. "Mrs Remi Nchira nods her appreciation.

"I understand," she says. "Your work has already helped these children and the new generation to come. Thank you very much and God bless you."

The battle to beat Ndigane Kali, the disease wiping out Masai herds 

Beating Ndigane kali— the deadly East Coast fever—has been a long time coming. A vaccine was developed in 1972 but the production process proved complex and costly. Potential manufacturers were reluctant to invest while governments declined to endorse the use of such an expensive remedy. Tanzania was the exception, with the government's livestock service latching on to the heroic efforts of Lieve Lynen and Beppe di Guilio, a husband and wife veterinary practice.

When she moved to Arusha in 1996, Dr Lynen began to import vaccine for the sole manufacturers in Kenya, and soon proved its efficacy among the smallholders whose cattle live right in the heart of Arusha's ramshackle, teeming metropolis.

Over the years, with government support, the couple's reach has expanded beyond any economic bounds. It was Dr Lynen who first inoculated Paolo Lemorongo's cattle in Engarenaibor, though his herd is a four-hour drive from her home.

Then, in 2006, vaccine supplies ran low. This, coupled with the privatisation of the Tanzanian veterinary service, threatened to end the inoculation campaign - until Galvmed stepped in to smooth relations with governments, to reassure the manufacturer, and to guarantee supply.

"It is a simple equation," says Dr Hameed Nuru of Galvmed. "Without us, there would be no more ECF vaccine."

Pastoral care

As well as tackling East Coast fever, Galvmed will shortly launch campaigns to control Rift Valley fever, transmitted by mosquitos, and fatal to humans and animals, as well as Newcastle disease, a deadly killer that can wipe out poultry flocks

In Africa alone 589 million chickens are at risk

The charity is also working to make available the vaccine for porcine cysticerosis, a disease that causes thousands of pigs to be destroyed across Africa, Latin America and Asia. PC can also affect humans, causing cysts on the brain, causing 20-50 per cent of late onset epilepsy cases around the world, and said to be responsible for 50,000 deaths every year in the developing world.

In the longer term Galvmed is developing disease action plans for other diseases affecting cattle, goats, sheep, pigs and poultry

In total, around 700 million people rely on livestock for their livelihoods— but despite the vital links between animal health and human health, livestock and livelihood, less than 5 per cent of international aid is directed at agriculture in developing countries, according to figures released by the World Bank in 2007.

The photos were taken by James Glossop

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