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Fighting East Coast fever - lessons from Maasailand

Over 90,000 cattle were vaccinated in Tanzania in 2009 (GALVmed)
Over 90,000 cattle were vaccinated in Tanzania in 2009

When asked about the success of vaccination against East Coast fever (ECF) in northern Tanzania, Dr Lieve Lynen, is remarkably modest. And yet more than 500,000 animals have been vaccinated against ECF in Tanzania since 1998, largely due to the work of Lynen's veterinary practice VetAgro Tanzania, which has led the way in promoting the ECF vaccine in the region for over 15 years. As a result of this achievement and a successful vaccine registration campaign, coordinated by the Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicines (GALVmed), veterinary authorities in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Tanzania have demonstrated renewed interest in vaccination as a means of ECF control.

Developed 30 years ago, the ECF-ITM vaccine has been shown to be a highly effective product, with a 95 per cent success rate in pastoral herds - one of the highest rates of protection offered by any livestock vaccine. However, up till now, governments in East, Central and Southern Africa have rejected widespread adoption of the ECF vaccine due to the complexity of delivering the vaccine, which requires the vials to be stored in liquid nitrogen. Administering the vaccine also requires training as the vaccine is administered in combination with an antibiotic to allow antibodies to ECF to build up without the disease taking hold.

Effective and affordable

Yet the vaccination programme in northern Tanzania has resulted in over 80 per cent of all calves vaccinated across many wards, protecting these animals for life against a disease which, in badly affected areas, is responsible for half of calf deaths. Achieving this kind of success in a remote area with a vaccine, which depends on a cold chain for delivery, and costs up to US$10 per animal, is remarkable. But in Lynen's view, the success should be credited to two main factors: the efficacy of the vaccine, and the willingness of the Maasai pastoralists to pay for the vaccine in order to protect their herds and their livelihoods. "These are livestock keepers who know cattle and who know diseases," she says. "They are willing to adopt a technology if it works - to commit themselves to a product where they see it gives them a future in livestock production."

VetAgro has a network of 90 delivery paravets (community animal health workers), trained in the ECF 'infection and treatment' method and about to be officially certified. Lynen feels this is crucial in order to resolve concerns about mismanagement by some vaccinators, including use of 'dead' vaccine, which has been injected too long after removal from the cold chain, and cases of financial fraud.

Sharing the success

The vaccine currently requires a liquid nitrogen cold chain (GALVmed)
The vaccine currently requires a liquid nitrogen cold chain

News of the efficacy of the ECF vaccine spreads quickly amongst the pastoralist community once vaccination begins to be adopted in an area, observes Lynen. However, VetAgro is also raising awareness through sensitisation days and use of film and radio. A video, developed in collaboration with GALVmed, features smallholder dairy farmers and pastoralists explaining the benefits of vaccination, as well as the different stages in the vaccination process, so that farmers are aware of the process and can be better protected from potential fraudsters.

VetAgro is keen to work with community animal health workers (CAHWs). Chosen and trusted by their communities, they are well placed to connect livestock keepers with certified vaccinators. A partnership with the Babati-based Community Animal Health Network is currently being developed by VetAgro to link with the many CAHWs who play an important role in alerting their communities to disease outbreaks and have been trained in recent years through various NGO programmes. Through this network, VetAgro hopes to extend the reach of CAHWs for organising and publicising vaccination days.

According to Kapoo Lucumay, a veterinary assistant and trained ECF vaccinator working in Longido district, northern Maasailand, arranging vaccination days is not difficult once livestock keepers are aware of the success of the vaccine. "It is the livestock keepers who arrange it," he says. "They just talk and find out the number of animals they have between them. Then they phone and ask me to come and do the immunisation. There is no problem, because they already know the importance of this vaccine."

Private sector future

One vial of vaccine currently contains enough doses for 40 animals. In future, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which currently produces the vaccine, may look at developing a smaller vial of just five or eight doses, providing a more marketable product for private sector companies with an interest in setting up vaccination services. GALVmed is also providing support to reduce the time it takes to manufacture the vaccine and eliminate the need for liquid nitrogen.

The vaccine has drastically reduced calf mortality from 80% to 2% (GALVmed)
The vaccine has drastically reduced calf mortality from 80% to 2%

Maintaining the production and supply of the vaccine is seen as the key challenge to widespread vaccination, and such private sector involvement is an essential component. GALVmed is currently putting vaccination delivery out to tender in the private sector; inviting bids that will be scrutinised by a panel of organisations, including the African Union/IBAR and Pan African Vaccine Centre, which is responsible for quality control of all livestock vaccines on the continent.

Hameed Nuru, GALVmed senior director of policy and external affairs, outlines what the panel will be looking for in the applications: "Number one, these business proposals have to be sustainable, we have to have continuity. Two - they have to be pro-poor, pricing the product for poor people. And three, distribution of the production must be for a defined area."

The intention is that all aspects of vaccine production and delivery will be in private hands by the end of 2011. In the longer term, research is likely to focus on a new generation of vaccine that does not require the liquid nitrogen cold chain or the combined treatment with antibiotics.

Date published: August 2010


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