Helping people live with trypanosomiasis - one of the greatest constraints to African agricultural development

A new multilateral programme has been set up to combat one of the most significant obstacles to agricultural development in Africa - the animal and human disease, trypanosomiasis. The new Programme against African Trypanosomiasis (PAAT) was born of the realization that nearly 100 years of efforts at controlling the disease have failed to find any significant and sustainable solution.

The major "success" in the fight against trypanosomiasis is unsupervised use of drugs by cattle farmers, who - when they can afford it - buy and apply their own trypanocidal drugs. Despite this, the disease is as great a limit to agriculture today as it was 40 years ago.

One-third of the African continent is infested with trypanosomiasis and the insect that passes it from one animal to another - the tsetse fly. The disease affects nearly all large domestic animals, including sheep, goats, cattle, and horses. It seriously impedes agricultural and rural development, preventing farmers from taking full advantage of fertile land. Without draft animals to pull their ploughs, they are forced to work the fields slowly and laboriously by hand so they plant less, harvest less and produce less food.

Ethiopia: draft animals enable farmers to cultivate more land and produce more food

A study following a tsetse control programme in the Upper Didessa valley in Ethiopia, found that the amount of land cultivated after the successful control programme had increased by more than 380 percent, just because the farmers were able to introduce draft animals.

Where it is not fatal, trypanosomiasis leaves cattle emaciated and anaemic, reducing reproduction, milk production and work performance. It has been estimated that trypanosomiasis cuts cattle density by up to 70 percent in humid areas where abundant vegetation gives the tsetse fly good cover. In drier, subhumid areas, where vegetation is concentrated along rivers and other water sources, cattle density is cut by 37 percent.

"Sleeping sickness", the human form of trypanosomiasis, is found in discrete areas across the broad zone infested by the tsetse fly. But its sporadic epidemics devastate the local populations. It commonly afflicts up to 40 percent of the people in infected villages and the disease is often fatal if it is not treated early enough. The human disease situation has deteriorated rapidly over the last decade and is now similar to what it was in the 1930s.

PAAT sprang from a growing awareness that lack of focus and of collaboration - both across disciplines and across national borders - were root causes in the lack of headway made in the fight against the disease. The programme's Secretariat is an inter-agency alliance, harnessing the expertise of four major international organizations - FAO, the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources of the Organization of African Unity. The programme as a whole is an international alliance bringing together 37 affected African nations, research institutes, donor institutions and countries.

PAAT has drawn up action plans for the human and animal diseases that focus on agricultural development and food production and on combatting emerging sleeping sickness epidemics. A basic five-point action plan has been drawn up for the animal disease:

  • Look at the impact of animal trypansomiasis on agriculture.
  • Identify areas where disease control will give the best returns.
  • Identify the disease prevention and control techniques most appropriate to the area.
  • Monitor implementation of techniques.
  • Verify the effectiveness of the techniques applied.

Several countries have already started work under the plan. The effective disease and vector control techniques to be used under PAAT include:

  • curative drugs, which cure the disease but give no lasting protection,
  • prophylactic drugs, which are generally administered every three months,
  • vector control using:
    • traps,
    • targets coated with insecticide,
    • animals coated with insecticide.

The use of trypanotolerant animals is also appropriate in some areas, although these are only found in West Africa. Because they are smaller and less productive than non-tolerant breeds, they are not popular with farmers and trypanotolerance is quickly lost in cross-breeding. Long-term research into the usefulness of such breeds is ongoing under PAAT.

In many countries, trypanosomiasis and poverty go hand in hand. The drugs to treat or prevent the disease cost money that poor farmers with sick animals cannot earn. Sleeping sickness reduces their productivity even further. Shelving the dream of total eradication of a disease that covers 9 million square kilometres and is spread by 23 species of tsetse fly, PAAT is concentrating on making the best use of available knowledge and resources to break into this vicious circle, enabling farmers to manage the disease, and break out of the poverty trap.

28 May 1998

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