New vaccine for East Coast Fever saves farmers' cattle in Uganda

In a series of features focusing on FAO projects in Africa, Leyla Alyanak reports on how a new vaccine is reducing the threat of East Coast Fever in Uganda

New vaccine for East Coast Fever saves farmers' cattle in Uganda

East Coast Fever is the most economically limiting factor to raising cattle in Uganda

At 40 hectares, Ruben Beera Sekitoleko's farm is one of the biggest in the area outside Mityana. He may not be a rich man by urban standards, but his 30 head of cattle make him confident he'll survive any catastrophe that might befall him. And to him, catastrophe is an all too familiar word.

"I started 30 years ago with just two indigenous cows" he said, "and then traded them for an exotic cow that gives more milk". Because of both genetics and nutrition, local cattle mature slowly, produce less milk and give birth to fewer calves, so exotic or improved cows - local breeds crossed with imported ones - are much sought after. They also cost three times more.

"I bought another exotic, my herd grew, and in a few years I had ten cows. I made money from selling milk, and I even grew coffee."

But then disaster hit, and East Coast fever (ECF), a parasite carried by ticks, wiped out more than half his herd. Undeterred, Ruben Sekitoleko started over.

Again his herd of cattle grew, this time doubling from his former ten to 20 head. But Sekitoleko's improved herd was particularly vulnerable to the tick-borne fever. Local animals, when healthy, are exposed to the disease at a younger age and can develop an immunity. But cattle improved with European or Asian strains will often die while attempting to adapt. Despite the risks, the impetus to build a better herd remained strong, and Sekitoleko kept on buying exotics.

He took care of his cattle much the same way as he always had. He built dipping tanks for them, and sprayed them when necessary, even though that was expensive. But no matter how conscientiously he cleaned his cattle, there was no guarantee his neighbour's cows - separated from his only by a short wooden fence - would be tick-free.

So when ECF again struck down half his herd, Sekitoleko was anything but surprised. Only this time, he had had enough. "When I first heard about vaccination against ECF from the local veterinarian, I immediately volunteered to be a pioneer for the scheme. I was the first farmer in my district to vaccinate my cattle" he said proudly.

The principle behind the vaccination is simple. The vaccine is a trivalent, which means it is a mixture of three strains. This helps provide the broadest possible immunity against the parasite. Animals are injected with the live vaccine, made from dead ticks, and then treated with an antibiotic to contain the infection. Any further attack by ticks will be fought off by the animal's immune system, and immunity will actually be boosted by the presence of the tick itself.

The vaccination scheme is part of the multidonor Programme for Integrated Tick and Tickborne Disease Control in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. It is available in a dozen districts in Uganda, and so far about 2 000 cattle have been immunized. A proposal submitted to the European Union for five years of funding would pay for the vaccination of up to 40 000 cattle a year.

The vaccine costs US$11 per animal, and usually lasts two to three years. The farmer contributes US$5 to the cost, which helps finance the veterinarian's transportation and salary, in effect making him self-financing.

Caring for cattle is crucial in this poor part of the country. Untreated, ECF is deadly and once infected, the cattle's lymph nodes swell, their immunity falls, and they ultimately die by suffocation due to lung infection. Until the introduction of the new vaccine technology, the vast majority of Ugandan farmers, most of them living at subsistence level, could not afford to keep the improved but ECF-prone cattle.

"ECF is the most economically limiting factor to raising cattle here," said Mike Moran, FAO's Chief Technical Advisor for the Programme. "By using the vaccines, we hope the poor will be able to keep and manage the new cattle. We would like the less fortunate to be able to take advantage" Moran said.

The vaccine also helps save money. "The new technology has enabled those with improved cattle to keep their animals and reduce the intensity of tick control. So they save money, and improve production" said Kenneth Mugabi, the government veterinarian who works with FAO on the project. Under the programme, farmers have been able to cut tick control costs by 50 to 60 percent.

Scientists heavily researched ECF vaccines for 20 years, during which time its use in the field was delayed. Rather than wait for the perfect vaccine, five years ago FAO decided to go ahead with what was available. But the system is not perfect and once vaccinated, only 80 to 85 percent of animals will develop an immunity to ECF. Also, one in ten animals may react negatively to the vaccine.

"Even with this kind of treatment, the animal can sometimes die," said Mugabi. "But we are talking about generally poor subsistence farmers, for whom the cost of acaricides, the drugs to treat the fever, is prohibitively expensive." Compared with US$5 for the vaccine, treatment against ECF can cost up to US$100 per animal. In Uganda, the yearly per caput GDP is just US$182.

Lower costs, improved yields and stronger animals are key in a country where most people live in rural areas, and where nearly a third of farms depend on the country's 400 000 livestock for a large part of their income. In the past, years of war also weakened the national herd, and the FAO project is helping ensure that when restocking takes place, it does so with better, more productive breeds.

For Sekitoleko, the vaccine has been nothing short of a godsend. "After they were immunized, my animals still got ticks. They were just not getting sick from them, that's all" he said. "Once in a while, one of my calves may die, but I don't worry anymore. My herds aren't wiped out like they used to be, and I finally have peace of mind."

27 June 1997

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