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Fight against brucellosis moves from strategy to action in Georgia

Today, Georgia stepped up its effort to keep the country’s roughly 1.2 million cattle and nearly one million sheep, goats, and pigs as healthy and productive as possible.

The Government of Georgia and FAO signed an agreement to work together in a push to halt the spread of brucellosis in the country’s livestock. The ceremony took place this afternoon at Georgia’s Ministry of Agriculture, where Nodar Kereselidze, First Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Zaza Dolidze, Head of Georgia’s National Food Agency, and Raimund Jehle, Alternate FAO Representative for Georgia, formally recognized the cooperation between Georgia and FAO.

As part of the new project, FAO will help the Georgian government implement a comprehensive national strategy to tackle brucellosis. The initiatives include raising public awareness of the disease, training government personnel to reinforce surveillance and response, and assisting vaccination campaigns for livestock.

Brucellosis is an all-too-common bacterial disease in a country that does a brisk business in livestock and dairy exports. The disease can cause decreased milk production, weight loss, abortions and infertility in infected animals, symptoms that threaten a vital source of food and income to Georgia’s 4.3 million people.

Containing brucellosis is also a matter of public health—it is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it can be transmitted from animals to humans. The disease can be transmitted via tainted dairy products such as unpasteurized milk or fresh cheese, a staple of Georgian cuisine. Veterinarians, slaughterhouse and laboratory workers, farmers and others who directly handle animals or animal products face a particularly high risk of exposure.

According to the World Health Organization, brucellosis symptoms in humans mimic the flu and include fever, weight loss, and weakness. Without proper treatment, the illness can develop into a chronic disease with severe and debilitating complications. In the last decade, the disease known locally as ‘Mediterranean fever’ has infected between 90 and 200 people annually.

Brucellosis has become endemic in livestock across Georgia, especially in the country’s eastern region. Infected animals shed the bacteria through their milk or reproductive discharge, which in turn can contaminate communal feed, pasture and water. Left undetected or untreated, the disease can spread quickly among herds or flocks.

To make matters more difficult, brucellosis can only be accurately diagnosed by a laboratory test. That’s why preventive measures such as vaccinations, epidemiological surveillance, and proper husbandry practices are the key to curtailing brucellosis.

In 2013, FAO laid the groundwork for Georgia’s long-term effort to support animal health. A baseline assessment identified priorities, gaps, bottlenecks, and opportunities that have guided the government’s national strategy on brucellosis control.

Even with limited financial resources, the Georgian government has prioritized acting on FAO’s recommendations and begun investing in preventive measures. Raising awareness among farmers and consumers about brucellosis has been essential—farmers in particular may be especially reluctant to address infected animals, which must be culled and slaughtered to minimize the risk of transmission.

Now, Georgia will shift into high gear and begin implementing its national brucellosis control strategy. Today’s signing ceremony marks the beginning of a multi-faceted two year project to move Georgia closer to eradicating the disease.

FAO will assist the Georgian National Food Agency (NFA) in conducting a vaccination campaign and train officials at the NFA to effectively implement disease control measures over the long term. The project, valued at US$ 280,000, will be funded by the Georgian government, using financial resources allocated through the Comprehensive Institution Building (CIB) program from the European Union’s direct budget support.

“Brucellosis was quite bad in Georgia, but the country is making progress, investing its own  funds and increasing the number of people working on the issue,” said Andriy Rozstalnyy, an animal health expert based at FAO’s regional office in Budapest.

But it will take time, effort, patience, and commitment for the Georgian government to stop the disease in its tracks and revitalize a more competitive livestock sector.

“Eradicating brucellosis can take decades, already taking up to thirty years in many countries,” added Rozstalnyy. “But the effort is worth it.”

25 February 2015, Tbilisi, Georgia

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