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An environmental view of animal health and disease

Better housing for animals offers protection against both disease and predators (© FAO/EAHMI)
Better housing for animals offers protection against both disease and predators
© FAO/EAHMI

Bringing the concept of environmental health from human medicine to the farm, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been helping the governments of the Philippines, Cambodia and Laos map and manage interactions between farm animals, the environment, and dangerous pathogens. In recent years it has been all too apparent that a poor living environment for livestock can foster diseases such as Avian Influenza, H1N1 and salmonella, making the environmental conditions of animal production an issue of urgent worldwide importance. As the source of some of the most dangerous outbreaks of recent years, South-East Asia is at the centre of this new global focus on animal health, which, in many cases, also represents a veterinary public health concern.

Farmers here have been micro-managing some environmental conditions on their own land for centuries, but other factors - such as water quality, zoning, and surveillance of disease outbreaks - must be dealt with on a larger scale. In either case, if disease control and sustainable development are to improve, the many interactions between farm animals and the environment must be understood, mapped, and addressed with unprecedented coordination and collective action.

Animals in their environment

The Philippines, Cambodia and Laos are working with FAO to establish just such a holistic approach through the Environmental Animal Health Management Initiative (EAHMI). Funding from the Government of Italy is supporting a combination of integrated animal disease management, improved animal husbandry and farm management practices, and better use of natural resources, all based on coordinated geographic information. Along the way the initiative is helping to define, in practice, the emerging field of environmental animal health management.

Bio-digesters convert manure and farm waste into biogas for lighting and cooking (© Cambodia National Bio-digester Programme)
Bio-digesters convert manure and farm waste into biogas for lighting and cooking
© Cambodia National Bio-digester Programme

"The concept derives from 'environmental health' in human medicine, and originates from various discussions in FAO's Department of Animal Production and Health in Rome and Bangkok in the late 1990s and early 2000s," says project coordinator David Bourn. Environmental health encompasses all aspects of health and welfare that are determined by physical, chemical and biological factors external to the human body - or, in this case, the pig, chicken, water buffalo, cow or any other domestic animal.

For instance, farmers are being encouraged to improve livestock nutrition with fodder crops, crop residues and supplementary feeds, boosting animal productivity and immune systems. They are also providing animal housing to keep diseases and predators away. On the community scale, various projects are supporting the construction of thousands of bio-digesters, brick chambers that can create biogas from manure and other waste - turning potential environmental contaminants into gaslight and cooking flames.

Mapping the data

These efforts are coordinated by countrywide data collection with handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) units, the data being channelled into a Geographical Information System (GIS). This has generated powerful tools for government researchers and planners, such as a three-dimensional model of the northern Philippines showing levels of municipal chicken density - used successfully to identify high risk areas for Avian Influenza.

EAHMI field data was transformed into this GIS map of the northern Philippines displaying chicken density (© FAO/EAHMI)
EAHMI field data was transformed into this GIS map of the northern Philippines displaying chicken density
© FAO/EAHMI

The Philippines is where the initiative first began in 2005. In the years since, a broad base of institutions and universities has been involved, says Bourn. "EAHMI activities are being incorporated at national, regional and provincial levels, through capacity building for standardised data collection and reporting of animal resources, disease outbreaks, vaccinations and animal movements by local livestock and veterinary officers."

Dr. Karen Dazo of the Bureau of Animal Industry, one agency involved, has become the national focal point officer for EAHMI in the Philippines. "Thus far the Bureau has been active in conducting programs in environmental management," she says, "such as biogas production and programs for the control of various diseases including Surra (Trypanosomosis) transmitted by biting flies and Liver Fluke (Fasciolosis) hosted by common water snails. The Bureau utilises GIS maps as powerful tools in visualising and depicting disease outbreaks, population densities, vaccination coverage, monitoring of animal health activities, and mapping of geographic-based disease risks."

Environmental health for all

Bringing this level of coordination to farmers and agencies has meant changes for everyone. "The challenge to a small farmer keeping livestock is in implementing the EAHMI approach, balancing this with the other practices that they are used to relying on," Dazo believes. The environment itself has also been an unpredictable factor. "Although the program is really welcomed by the regional and field personnel, and the farmers as well once they are educated about it, extreme weather events like typhoons and floods are able to derail the implementation of this holistic approach."

Growing fodder for better livestock health helps animals resist contagious diseases (© FAO/EAHMI)
Growing fodder for better livestock health helps animals resist contagious diseases
© FAO/EAHMI

Overcoming challenges to implementation means creating a system that works for everyone. "The Philippines component has a Project Steering Committee including a wide range of stakeholder interests," Bourn says. "Working papers and reviews are commissioned from national specialists, for presentation at management meetings, workshops and conferences. Introducing new ideas and approaches and influencing policy takes time, but I believe that our efforts are well appreciated and that progress is being made."

FAO is now looking forward to bringing the environmental health approach and its strategies of coordination to more governments. In its next phase, EAHMI will soon bring in more neighbours, Bourn reports. "Plans for further expansion to include Myanmar and Viet Nam, and extension for a further two years to 2013, are currently being negotiated."

The project is implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in partnership with the Bureau of Animal Industry in the Philippines; the Department of Animal Production and Health in Cambodia; and the Department of Livestock and Fisheries in Laos

Written by: T. Paul Cox

Date published: November 2011

 

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