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Using Geographic Information Systems for surveillance and monitoring of animal diseases

10/08/2021

Historically, epidemiologists have used maps to study the relationships between time, location, environment and animal diseases. In the last decade, mapping diseases and risk factors using a Geographic Information System (GIS) has become a game changer in surveillance and disease control systems. Awareness of the new information provided by spatial and temporal analysis can greatly increase the effectiveness of responses to potential animal health emergencies, including those that may affect public health. Using GIS, veterinary and public health services can understand and explain the dynamics and patterns of disease occurrence and implement appropriate measures in the event of a health emergency.

However, many African countries have little or no staff with spatial epidemiology training or the capacity to carry out this activity. Most times, veterinary services rely on rudimentary and inconsistent disease reporting procedures and manual recording techniques, and the information network is weak. With data visualization and GIS mapping of diseases and risk factors, risk mitigation measures can be applied more selectively and only in areas where they are needed.

Although still a long way from routine use, geo-information technologies have been promoted and applied in many African countries. In the West and Central Africa region, the main challenge is the development of sufficient and relevant veterinary databases to serve as a basis for putting in place institutionalized and sustainable surveillance systems, adapted to the needs of the countries and the animal disease problems occurring within and beyond their borders. Another major concern is the need to train and regularly update the training of personnel involved in the use of GIS for veterinary surveillance.

In this context, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has made a commitment through its Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases (ECTAD) to assist countries with the development of their own early warning systems, via the Emergency Prevention System for Animal Health programme. FAO is involved at national, regional and global level with the development of disease early warning systems and it has been building capacities and promoting the use of GIS to access and use relevant information available in existing surveillance systems for prioritized zoonoses through a series of workshops and trainings on data visualization, and disease and risk factor mapping using GIS since early 2019. The main goal is to build a pool of experts in the West and Central Africa region equipped with advanced knowledge in GIS and spatial epidemiology to assist the region to better prevent, detect and respond to animal disease threats in a more cost effective manner.

“GIS training in Sierra Leone helped the veterinary services to map diseases and risk factors to better understand and explain the dynamics and patterns of disease emergence or spread and increase the speed for an efficient response to a disease emergency,” said Lydia Sesay, representative of the Chief Veterinary Officer in Sierra Leone, where the training was held in May 2019. 

The Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Ghana, where the training took place in October 2019, used GIS training to improve the analysis of data on animal resource information. In Mali, FAO Representative, Amadou Allahoury, acknowledged the excellent work done by the FAO epidemiological experts during the national GIS workshop carried out in Bamako. 

GIS during COVID-19

Given the importance of georeferenced sanitary information (e.g., livestock infrastructures, disease outbreaks) and optimized surveillance systems based on risk assessment and mapping of priority zoonotic diseases (PZDs) at country level during the COVID-19 pandemic, the regional office of FAO ECTAD in West and Central Africa, with the support of FAO headquarters, has rolled out a series of refresher trainings to strengthen the capacities of veterinary services staff on GIS using the Quantum GIS (QGIS) open software.

Following travel restrictions and limitations on face-to-face meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic, these regional trainings have been organized and delivered virtually through a series of online webinars. The first two basic level GIS trainings were conducted in December 2020 and March 2021, respectively. The third online training, paving the way for future intermediate level trainings, was held in June 2021.

With these online trainings, the capacity of 43 epidemiologists from veterinary services in West and Central Africa was strengthened in spatial analysis and data visualization of animal disease outbreaks and related risk factors using the QGIS software. A total of 12 countries benefited from these capacity programmes: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone

The GIS training has equipped trainees to better monitor animal population variations and their movements in the value chain studies for efficient and sustainable disease surveillance and control. Participants showed a strong motivation and willingness to sustainably apply GIS knowledge and to further transfer this 

know-how at national and subnational levels. Remarkably, real progress was observed between the December 2020 and March 2021 trainings, where participants progressively assimilated key GIS concepts and became familiar with the basic operations of the QGIS software. 

The way forward

In addition to the trainees' progress, a face-to-face and online training package on basic GIS has been developed and made available to participants in English and French, including webinar recordings, theory, presentations, exercises and instructions, simulations, as well as an adapted version of the QGIS manual. A network of QGIS users was also established to facilitate regular knowledge and information sharing among countries moderated by experts at FAO regional and headquarter levels. An 

intermediate-level GIS training on spatial qualitative risk analysis is currently being developed with the support of the French International Cooperation Centre of Agricultural Research for Development and will likely be conducted during the last quarter of 2021.

Although introducing a GIS tool often highlights the scarcity of data available in the countries where it is implemented, it also provides a way to promote improved data recording and quality. This is why FAO believes the possibilities and potential uses of a GIS in the field of animal disease surveillance and monitoring are innumerable: recording and reporting of information, disease forecasting, modelling of disease spread and, most importantly, planning of control strategies.