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  • Nancy McNally
    Communications Officer
    Animal Health
    FAO HQ
    Viale delle Terme di Caracalla
    Rome 00153, Italy
    Tel: +39 06 570 55397
  • Nancy.mcnally@fao.org
Classroom training and face-to-face focus group discussions with communities. ©FAO/Simon Maina


FAO holds Canada-funded communications trainings in Kenya, Uganda


Maasai pastoralists living near the town of Kajiado, south of Nairobi, have taken part in an important pan-African exercise by the FAO to improve control of animal-to-human diseases by using grassroots outreach and a One Health approach that engages people from across different walks of life in problem solving. Seated in mixed groups under the warm sun, Kenyan and international vets listened attentively last month as around 30 Maasai men and women told of the new challenges they were facing in rearing livestock.

“In just one day, we gathered an enormous amount of valuable information about the health of their livestock, existing sanitary practices and emerging issues, some known to the experts, some not,” said FAO Representative in Kenya Dan Rugabira. “If we are going to implement the right disease control strategies, it is important we know what is going on at the grassroots level.”

FAO is a proponent of using One Health approaches that are being supported by the Kenyan government to combat the growing threat of re-occurring and emerging diseases in the face of expanding human and animal populations, globalization, climate change, and other factors that impinge on the health of people, animals and the environment.

Two out of three emerging and new diseases in human beings have a link to animals. Of those emerging diseases, 75 per cent come from wildlife.

The Maasai pastoralists discussed a wide range of issues such as boiling milk to prevent brucellosis, best practices to halt the spread of Malignant Catarrhal Fever (MCF), such as disposing of aborted foetuses and animal carcasses, and the Maasai practice of blood-letting.

East Africa is a real hotspot for these new human and animal threats, because of the vast pasturelands difficult for vets to cover, and because of the amount of rain forest from which animal to human disease can emerge.

Extensive global trade and travel means these old and new diseases can spread quickly across borders, yet new scientific knowledge doesn’t always reach the people who need to know, and local knowledge on animal disease is not shared, even when the livestock holders are living close to cities and knowledge centres such as universities and hospitals. Veterinarians, in addition, aren’t always aware of the most urgent problems on the ground, just for a lack of contact with more remote communities.

One such disease is brucellosis, a bacterial disease that affects animals and humans. In humans it is characterized by intermittent fever, headaches, muscle aches and weakness that can last for weeks or months, if not years even with treatment.  Humans can catch brucellosis from livestock and contaminated livestock products. The disease requires a lengthy and costly treatment putting a huge financial strain on poor households. The disease is so debilitating that farmers are largely unable to work.

The group discussions with the Maasai revealed that while the younger generations understood and accepted the need to boil milk to avoid ingesting brucellosis bacteria, some of the elders were still baffled as to why the food that had sustained them for centuries suddenly had to be cooked. “Hot milk gives me an ulcer” said one Maasai elder.

On the other hand, with regard to drinking raw blood, a Maasai pastoralist tradition, the elder generation understood that it could now be a risky practice, due to the emergence of new diseases. The young Moran warriors, on the other hand, said they still drank raw blood mixed with milk to make them strong.

Blood, usually mixed with milk, is traditionally given to a person on special occasions such as after a circumcision marking the passage to manhood, after a woman gives birth and when people fall ill. Highly nutritious, and drained from the animal’s jugular vein without killing it, blood can also serve as a valuable source of protein during times of drought.

The visiting vets and animal health experts heard how shrinking pasture land due to commercial development makes it harder for Maasai to move their herds away from calving wildebeest whose foetal fluids spread malignant catarrhal fever (MCF) to livestock. Wildebeest carry, but do not develop MCF which attacks the digestive system and multiple internal organs of cattle and other wildlife causing blindness and eventually death.

“Our parents used to talk about this disease but they could protect their herds because the land was so vast they could keep their cattle out of the way of the wildebeest until they had stopped calving, but now we can’t avoid it,” said Pastor David Kompe, 52.

By bringing vets from the region to meet with the pastoralists, FAO demonstrated how the sharing of knowledge through focus group discussions can enhance the understanding of grassroots animal health issues of animal health practitioners, producers and other actors in the value chain. The UN food and agriculture agency has been supported in its efforts by the Canadian International Development Agency.

FAO piloted the participatory communications method for animal to human disease prevention in Nigeria in 2009 when the country was still reeling from avian flu. The FAO approach was seen as an important component in stopping the outbreak in the West African Nation.

Last week FAO held a workshop in Kampala with vets from South Sudan and Uganda. The workshop this week is being held at the Hotel Jacaranda in Nairobi where Kenyan and Tanzanian vets will be trained on how to run focus groups from farmers, analyse the data and develop appropriate animal health messages and practical solutions.

“Disease often first manifests itself in the livestock and on the farms of resource-poor farmers, who are also the first to suffer economic loss and illness” said Dr Stella Kiambi-Wanyeki of Kenya’s Ministry of Livestock Development, Zoonotic Disease Unit.

“As we witnessed in Kenya in 2007, a disease like Rift Valley Fever can quickly spread and have a major impact on food security and the local and national economy.

The only way to manage these diseases is to keep everyone involved – vets, producers, retailers, public health officials and consumers, in constant dialogue. In that way we can determine exactly what interventions are appropriate for the different actors concerned.”