The Pitfalls of Humanitarian Livestock Vaccinations

Vaccinating goats against peste des petits ruminants in Kenya, 2013. ©ECHO/Martin Karimi

Vaccinating goats against peste des petits ruminants in Kenya, 2013.     ©ECHO/Martin Karimi

Livestock vaccination campaigns are often favorites of the humanitarian aid community because they engage a lot of local people, can spend large sums of money relatively quickly, and popular sentiment is that “you can’t go wrong with vaccinations, right?”

The answer, as with most things, is that you CAN go wrong with vaccinations if the specific circumstances are not carefully considered.

Mass vaccination of livestock is a potent tool in controlling and preventing diseases, safeguarding what in many societies comprises the most important single family resource. On the other hand, poorly thought-out campaigns may provide little benefit for animal owners. At worst, they can render animals even more vulnerable to disease.

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Animal Sleeping Sickness (Trypanosomosis): An Example of the Pitfalls of Trying to Control It

Fellata nomad milking her cows in Maban, South Sudan. The Fellata cattle breed does not tolerate strangers approaching too closely and are known as a wild breed by other peoples. But their owners handle and walk among them with no trouble.     Charles Hoots

Trypanosomes are single-celled protozoan organisms, one species of which causes sleeping sickness in people and several of which cause a similar disease in animals. In its “classic” form, the animal disease is spread from wildlife to cattle in much of sub-Saharan Africa through the bite of a tsetse fly, resulting in a slow wasting away of the affected livestock (but with typically no signs of illness in the wildlife hosts).

I arrived in northeast South Sudan in 2013 to work on a livestock project for the German branch of Veterinarians Without Borders. The animal form of sleeping sickness (which I will call AAT, short for African animal trypanosomosis) was at the time a major problem in the herds of the 120,000 refugees from neighboring Sudan living in four camps in the area. But the situation was far from “classic.”

Nearly a quarter-century of civil war had led to the almost complete elimination of large wildlife species that tend to act as reservoir hosts for trypanosomes. In addition, tsetse fly vectors, the poster child for sleeping sickness in people and animals, were nowhere to be found. Our subsequent joint effort with the community to control this disease taught me valuable lessons in how good intentions can go awry in animal (and human) health planning through failure to consider every aspect.

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