26 March 2014 - Vector-borne diseases (VBDs) like Rift Valley fever (RFV) or Bluetongue are increasingly threatening animal health. They are also spreading to previously unaffected geographic areas, increasing alarm and concern, particularly in northern Africa and Europe. VBDs not only have a significant negative impact on local livelihoods, but also on national and international trade and food production. In the case of RVF, its zoonotic nature adds an important public health dimension. The environment, climate and socio-economic context are closely interlinked and continuously changing, but not always well understood. A better understanding of these will allow the development of more cost-effective, innovative and science-based surveillance tools and strategies. This will in turn improve the overall preparedness against these emerging threats.
In a bid to better predict, prevent and control the emergence and spread of VBDs, the European Commission set up a research consortium entitled Vmerge under their Framework Programme 7 (FP7) and coordinated by the Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD). Within the Vmerge consortium, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is leading activities with a focus on RVF to promote integrative research and its translation into policies and strategies, along with 15 other partners. Five of these research centres are based in northern Africa and Senegal, and the other ten are in Europe.
In February 2014, one of the African research partners - the Institut Agronomique et Vétérinaire Hassan II (IAV) in Morocco - hosted a meeting in which the 16 partners came together for the first time in order to discuss and programme the next three years of activities. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also attended in their role as observers and as part of the Advisory Board.
FAO's main aim with Vmerge is to reach an improved understanding of RVF epidemiology, which will translate into the development of better early warning and surveillance strategies for northern Africa and Senegal. FAO-led activities for the research consortium include:
- Disease modelling and risk mapping to improve early detection and preparedness. Innovative methods will be explored to optimize the RVF prediction in northern and western Africa based on environmental and climatic variables. Risk maps for the region will be regularly produced and shared online through the FAO website.
- Proposing new policy and surveillance strategies in northern Africa and Sahel. FAO will ensure that existing and newly-generated scientific knowledge on vector ecology, RVF epidemiology and risk modelling will be translated into policies, manuals and guidelines disseminated at country and regional level. These will help national authorities to adapt their contingency plans and be better prepared against incursions of RVF;
- Providing training and capacity building to fill any gaps, including the skills needed for the prevention and control of VBDs;
- Mapping and identifying projects. By coordinating the mapping of existing information on RVF and vector ecology, FAO will allow for rapid access to relevant data and stakeholders, while avoiding the duplication of efforts;
- Developing a tool to encourage molecular epidemiology. By linking sequences in sequence databases to the outbreaks where they originated according to FAO's animal health database, it will be possible to understand the distribution of viral strains, whether a virus has been recently introduced or was already present, the possible origins of an outbreak, the spread routes, etc.
A very important aspect that FAO stresses is the need for enhanced collaboration between research institutes and veterinary services. Because of this geographical focus, Vmerge will be supported by the Mediterranean Animal Health Network (REMESA), which coordinates veterinary services in northern Africa and southern Europe. Participants at the meeting in Morocco observed that the success of the project is highly dependent on the close and early involvement of veterinary services through REMESA's sub-networks' focal points. FAO holds the REMESA secretariat and will therefore be instrumental in achieving close coordination through timely exchange of information, back-to-back meetings and jointly planned activities. These will be crucial for the implementation of field activities and the adoption of new knowledge, strategies and tools by the veterinary services.
On a wider scale, FAO will help link authorities to the public sector in order to share scientific results and propose new policies. Disseminating knowledge in the animal health community at large will help establish the feasibility, practicality and future of the implementation of Vmerge.