Millions of African families could be saved from destitution thanks to a much-needed vaccine that is being mass-produced in a drive to protect cattle against a deadly parasite.
East Coast fever is a tick-transmitted disease that kills one cow every 30 seconds – with one million a year dying of the disease.
Calves are particularly susceptible to the disease. In herds kept by the pastoral Maasai people, for example, the disease kills from 20 to over 50 per cent of all unvaccinated calves. This makes it difficult and often impossible for the herders to plan for the future, to improve their livestock enterprises and thus to raise their standard of living.
An experimental vaccine against East Coast fever was first developed more than 30 years ago. This has been followed by work to allow the vaccine to be produced on a large scale, with major funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and others.
East Coast Fever puts the lives of more than 25 million cattle at risk in the 11 countries where the disease is now endemic, and endangers a further 10 million animals in new regions such as southern Sudan, where the disease has been spreading at a rate of more than 30 kilometres a year. The vaccine could save the 11 affected countries at least £175 million a year.
The immunization procedure – called "infection-and-treatment" because the animals are infected with whole parasites while being treated with antibiotics to stop development of disease – has proved highly effective. However, initial stocks produced in the 1990s recently ran low.
The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), at the request of the Africa Union/Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources and chief veterinary officers in affected countries, produced one million doses of vaccine to fill this gap. However, for the longer term it is critical that sustainable commercial systems for vaccine production, distribution and delivery are established.
With UK£16.5 million provided by DFID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the charity GALVmed is fostering innovative commercial means to do just this, beginning with the registration and commercial distribution and delivery of this new batch of the vaccine. This will ensure that the vaccine is made available, accessible and affordable to livestock keepers who need it most and to scale up its production for the future.
International Development Minister Mike Foster said: "Some 1.3 billion of the world's poorest people rely on livestock for their livelihoods. Many Africans depend on the health of their cattle for milk, meat and as their only hard asset for trade and investment. A smallholder dairy farmer can take years to recover economically from the death of a single milking cow. That's why it's vital that every possible step is taken to ensure that these essential vaccine doses are sustainably produced, tested and made available to the people who need them.
"DFID is supporting GALVmed to explore ways of transferring the production and distribution of the vaccine into the private sector through local manufacturers and distributors. This is extremely important in making the vaccine affordable, accessible and – crucially – sustainable."
GALVmed CEO Steve Sloan said: "Funded by DFID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, GALVmed is working to protect livestock and the livelihoods of their owners. Thanks to the highly effective East Coast fever vaccine developed over many years by researchers working in East Africa and then refined and mass produced by ILRI, cattle invaluable to pastoralists such as the Maasai as well as smallholder dairy farmers are being protected.
"The survival of cattle for the millions who live on tiny margins has a direct effect on quality of life and the dignity of choice and self-determination. Collaborating with ILRI and partners in the developing world, including governments and veterinary distributors and those from the private sector, GALVmed is working to embed the vaccine through registration in East African countries and to scale up its production so that it remains accessible to poor people.
"This pioneering registration effort aims to ensure that the vaccine is approved and monitored by affected nations and enables local firms to sell and distribute it, embedding its sustainability. Registration in Malawi is already complete, with significant progress in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda."
ILRI veterinary scientist Henry Kiara, who has conducted research on the live vaccine for 20 years, explains that ILRI is "looking forward to commercialising the production, distribution and delivery of the vaccine to the smallholder and emerging dairy producers as well as livestock herders" in this region of Africa. "Now that all the building blocks are in place, thanks to past investments by DFID and others", he says, "we are excited to be at a stage where this vaccine can 'take off'."
Over the past several years, the field logistics involved in mass vaccinations of cattle with the infection-and-treatment method have been greatly improved, due largely to the work of a private Company called VetAgro Tanzania Ltd, working with Maasai cattle herders in northern Tanzania. Sustainability underpins GALVmed's approach and the charity is working with developing world partners to ensure that the vaccine is available to those who need it most, bringing public and private partners together.
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