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Australian veterinary students experience FMD control challenges in northern Laos

By Janet Nguyen (BVSc V student, University of Sydney, New Colombo Plan Scholarship recipient) – Janet traveled to Laos for 1 month to participate in the Australian Centre of International Agriculture Research (ACIAR) funded project aiming to enhance transboundary livestock disease management in Laos.

In late May 2016, Kate Sze-Kay Luk (also a final year veterinary student) and I embarked on a journey to Nan district, approximately one-hour drive from the popular tourist destination Luang Prabang in northern Laos. It was interesting seeing the steep inclines of utilised farmland which were noticeably unlike the flat plains I’m more used to in Australia. We arrived at a guesthouse which had basic facilities but I was thankful we were given a room and comfortable bed to rest in and the air conditioning was a bonus! In the afternoon we were invited to lunch with the Department of Livestock and Fisheries (DLF) staff members. Lunch was the now familiar bowl of Pho or Vietnamese noodles which provided a satisfying meal. In the evening we joined the DLF staff members again for a meal. The meal was novel to me and proved another delicious surprise. Dinner consisted of a bamboo basket of sticky rice and two dishes, both of which contained fish. The first bowl that arrived on our table was a soup dish and the second plate was laap, a somewhat spicy but refreshing dish with fish and various herbs. We were given a quick lesson on how the dishes were eaten; a handful of sticky rice was rolled into a ball which was used to scoop the accompanying dishes. Although we were new to this method of eating, we were happy to follow their example and enjoyed the new culinary experience!

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Photo: Kate Sze-Kay Luk (left) and Janet Nguyen (right) trying out some Lao cuisine!

The next day we embarked on a short walk to the first village with our DLF vaccination team. Each vaccination team consisted of four people and there were four teams in total. Each team carried with them an esky with bottles of vaccinations for haemorrhagic septicaemia (HS) and foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) – both diseases are exotic to Australia – a box of needles and syringes and ear tags with applicators. We arrived at the Head of the village’s house and exchanged introductions and formalities.

 

I found it very interesting that both the ducks and chickens were free to roam around the front yard and scavenge food for themselves. Unlike the broilers in Australia, these birds were a lot leaner and more ambulatory as they did have have the same musculoskeletal issues seen in broilers in Australia. The husbandry practices and productions system in Lao PDR were completely different to Australia’s; in Laos poultry production is dominated by backyard systems which was a stark contrast to the commercialised systems in Australia. It was also apparent that veterinary services were limited especially in more rural areas. This made me ponder on the impact of infectious diseases. Although devastating, the impacts from major infectious diseases like Avian Influenza and Newcastle disease in backyard poultry would be quite different compared to in the commercial sector. The different production systems mean that approaches to biosecurity would need to be carefully implemented. It’s easy to imagine the impacts of a disease outbreak in a small rural village causing major implications on income loss for already poor families and human health.

 

Behind the Head of the village’s house there was a huge plot of land used for crops and animals. The first thing I noticed was the lack of a cattle crush for safe animal restraint. All the animals on this property were free to roam the area, however all of them had a rope which was a few metres long and attached to a noose around their necks and unlike in Australia, these animals were freely roaming unconfined by fences. I also noticed there was a lack of holding yards to gather the animals to a single location. Instead, the villagers would bring the animals up one-by-one by leading them on the free end of the rope. Using the length of the rope, a makeshift halter was made to help restrain the head while the animal was brought in closer to the tree. Once the animal was adequately restrained, a DLF staff member would approach the animal from the side and vaccinate the animal with the two vaccines. The first vaccination was the HS vaccine; this vaccine was administered subcutaneously in the lower part of the neck. The staff member positioned the beveled edge of the 18G needle almost parallel to the skin but slightly off the vertical. Each animal was given 3mL of the vaccine, administered on one side of the neck while 2mL of the FMD vaccination was given on the opposite side of the neck. The FMD vaccination was given intramuscularly below the vertebrae and higher up in the neck compared to the HS vaccination. I was quite surprised at how well tolerated this procedure was. The method of restraint here was something that was completely different to what I had been used to. In Australia, animals requiring a vaccination were moved into a crush or a race however here in Laos, only minimal restraint (of the head) was practiced. This presented safety concerns associated with this type of restraint, however the lack of facilities meant that this was unavoidable. I ensured I was out of harm’s way whenever possible by keeping a safe distance from the animal. The method of restraint did come across as a surprise to me initially however after vaccinating several animals I started to become more accustomed to the practice while remaining cautious. You make more effort to read the animal and watch its movements and demeanor. Along with the vaccination some animals also required an ear tag and this was predominantly done by a DLF staff member. It was a pleasure working alongside the villagers and learning more about their lifestyles. It was evident that in more rural areas livestock production is an important source of income and the initiatives to help safeguard this livelihood was evidently appreciated. After the morning vaccination session, we joined the Head of the village for a breakfast made by his wife and daughter. The display of food was quite interesting and I was taken aback by some of the exotic dishes. Like other Laotian dishes, sticky rice was offered and we helped ourselves to the chicken soup and spicy dishes. I was not attuned to spiciness of the dishes and although delicious I could not eat a lot of it. I was encouraged to try a delicacy consisting of fried grasshoppers and although curious, I was unable to overcome my distaste for insects. Following breakfast, we walked a kilometer up the road to another property to continue the vaccinations.

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Photo: The students participating in large0scale FMD vaccination campaigns in northern Laos.

The next day we moved onto a second village. Again, we met up with the Head of the village and had breakfast before venturing out into the field to vaccinate the animals. This particular village raised buffaloes which I anticipated would present more of a challenge to us than the domesticated cattle. However, surprisingly the buffaloes were very quiet and although quite intimidating to approach were calm and quite familiar with the sight of the villagers. Again, restraint of these animals were quite minimal. Unlike the cattle from yesterday, most of the buffaloes did not have a noose around their necks and so the villagers had to catch them first before bringing them in to a tree or post. The process was slow but quite effective. The noose was secured in a slit made into a bamboo stick and this was used as an extension of the villager’s arm to catch the animals. Once the animal was caught, the loose end of the rope was tethered to a secure post before the animal was brought in closer. The head was restrained with a figure-8-like configuration made with the length of the rope. The approach to vaccinating buffaloes was similar to cattle and similarly an ear tag was given when required. Comparatively, I found it was more difficult to vaccinate the buffaloes as the skin was thicker and the buffaloes’ horns were a lot larger which obscured the view of the neck and presented an additional safety hazard. The terrain here was also more steeply inclined than the previous village and with the wet weather, getting around was more difficult. Overall the experience of vaccinating buffaloes was rewarding as it allowed me to work with animals which was an experience I have not had before. It was insightful to discover the relationship the villagers had with the animals and this made me realise that livestock animals are very much ingrained into their livelihood of the village folk and are important sources of income and food security.

 

The rest of the week was not dissimilar to the events of the first two days. On the second-to-last day I had the opportunity to work with another DLF staff member who devised a method to better safely restrain the animals. A fairly large branch was planted firmly into the ground and secured to a sturdy tree at the free end; this apparatus would then serve as the head restraint once the animal was walked in between the tree and the branch. I thought this was very clever from a practicality and safety point of view as it meant the animal did not require as much handling. The animals also seemed to cope with this method a lot better and did not resist it as much.

 

Overall the experience was a rewarding one. I observed many differences in the practices here in Laos compared to those used with Australian livestock. It was great to become a part of this initiative to help prevent important diseases seen in livestock production and it definitely provided me with a new found awareness of the exotic disease threats in the country. The experience also highlighted the importance of veterinary attention. In light of the economic and development situation in Laos, it is not always possible for livestock to receive immediate veterinary attention due to costs and limited (but developing) veterinary services. It is evident that the vaccination programs (and other preventive focused interventions) are pertinent as these major infectious diseases not only affect the welfare of an animal in the event of an outbreak but there’s also the major impact on human lives both economically and socially. As well as increasing my awareness of how veterinary services can be implemented in a rural setting, the experience gave me an insight into the rich Lao culture. It was quite exciting and novel for me to interact with the local villagers and share meals with them. Although the language barrier made communication difficult, I could still appreciate their warm gestures and open generosity. I learned to appreciate the basic necessities of living and the connectedness of the community was quite endearing to see. In rural northern Laos, technology was quite limited, food was cooked over a fire and air conditioning and internet were considered luxuries which many could not afford. Showering facilities were limited; most villages washed themselves using a tub of water and the toilets were not flushable which may come across as a surprise to some. These experiences have culminated to provide a greater understanding of the culture and despite some of struggles I faced, I could still appreciate and respect the Lao culture. I felt that this trip was definitely an eye opener. The lessons I’ve learned about livestock production and the culture in Laos were numerous and enriching.

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Photo: Local Lao food delicacies!

 

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