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Student perceptions of an FMD serological monitoring program and a Goat production workshop in Laos

Authors: Cameron Grundy and Georgia Andrews (reviewed by Isabel MacPhilamy & Peter Windsor)

Cameron and Georgia were in Laos for four weeks in June/July this year as part of their final year rotations in Public Practice rotations, obtaining hands-on experience of the challenges faced by the veterinary personnel and extension workers involved in smallholder livestock development activities in northern Laos. In addition to contributing to management of a variety of interesting companion animal cases at the SK Vet Clinic in Luang Prabang, including a case of suspected rabies, they were particularly fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in serological monitoring activities evaluating the Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) Vaccination project, a program involving strategic administration of over 1.6 million vaccines into large ruminants in northern provinces between 2012 to 2016, aimed ultimately at developing an FMD-free zone with vaccination in northern Laos. Cameron and Georgia visited the local farming communities of Vang Vieng, a town known as popular tourist destination in northern Laos on the Nam Song River and surrounded by picturesque mountains. These communities had recently participated in the FMD vaccination program, and were now having the immunity of their cattle and buffalo tested. This allows researchers to determine to level and duration of immunity provided by vaccination in the local Lao bovine species and breeds. They submitted the following blog.

“To test for immunity to FMD following vaccination, the team needed to obtain blood samples, an activity that made us extremely grateful for the farm facilities we have in Australia. As most livestock farmers in Laos are ‘smallholder farmers’, generally owning less than 10 head of cattle/buffalo, the finances available to purchase conventional cattle crushes are absent. Nevertheless the teams and farmers are quite resourceful in their ways of restraining their cattle. Some may say even better than a few hobby farmers many Australia cattle vets have had to deal with! In most cases the animals were restrained between a tree and a metal ‘bleeding pole’ that works in a similar fashion to the head bail in a crush. Tail jacks are then implemented to restrain the back end of the animal. While this system may still pose a slight danger to the person collecting blood, it generally works quite well and the pole can easily be moved between farmers and villages, so is very cost effective. Ideally, as cattle production and incomes increase it would be great if each village could afford to have communal cattle crushes, as long as appropriate biosecurity measures are established to prevent risks of disease transmission. After the blood is collected the samples were stored until the serum was separated and frozen for later analysis in the government veterinary laboratory in Vientiane.

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Image 1. Cameron jugular bleeding a cow in northern Laos to enable post-vaccine serological monitoring for FMD antibodies; note the use of a wooden bleeding pole enabling restraint of the cow.

This field trip was a great opportunity to witness the conditions involved in both animal health activities and those of the smallholder farmers. We were able to see where the cattle and buffalo are grazed and housed, with current risks of disease transmission that are faced by many smallholder farmers, clearly observed. FMD is caused by the highly contagious FMD virus, with multiple circulating serotypes which need to be established so that the correct vaccine is used when implementing vaccination campaigns. In the developed world during an FMD outbreak, many affected animals have traditionally been slaughtered in effort to contain outbreaks. In the developing countries such as in Laos, the slaughter of animals does not occur as cattle representing the household “bank” and governments cannot afford paying farmers compensation for the loss of their animals. All of these factors highlight the need for increased biosecurity practices, vaccination programs and public awareness campaigns targeting FMD.

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Image 2. Cameron and Georgia examining a canine patient at the SK Vet Clinic in Luang Prabang in Laos during their final year BVSc Public Practice rotation

The importance of disease prevention was further highlighted when we were invited to participate in an Australian Centre for International Research (ACIAR) led goat production and marketing workshop held at the Department of Agriculture and Forestry Office in Luang Prabang. This workshop involved participants from University of New England, University of Sydney, National Agriculture and Forestry Institute, National University of Laos, and the Lao Department of Agriculture and Forestry, along with representatives from NGOs and Agroforestry. The workshop was aimed at identifying areas within the current goat production systems that require research, including identifying the current markets that are being accessed by goat traders both within the country and in neighbouring Vietnam (it is believed that currently about 3,000 goats a month are sent to Vietnam from Laos). This was a great experience for us to witness the collaborative efforts required in resolving current production issues facing the emerging Lao goat industry. These experience as enabled us to gain a better understanding of the challenges faced by the Lao animal health sector and the enormous efforts that are required to create a more food secure country with improved rural livelihoods for some of the poorest people in the SE Asian region. Importantly, we observed how veterinary and animal scientists working in academic institutions with and supported by organisations such as ACIAR, OIE (the World Organisation for Animal Health) and NGOs, can contribute significantly to the development of rural communities and help combat regional poverty.”

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Image 3. Georgia jugular bleeding a cow near Vang Vieng in Laos to enable serological examination for antibodies FMD following vaccination, using a wooden bleeding pole.

“We conclude this with a big thank you to our Lao government hosts and the MLR team for having us this past month, plus the Australian government for financial support for us through the New Colombo Plan. We’ve had a really amazing and enjoyable time in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, with special thanks to Phiwanh who has been amazing, looking over us at the clinic everyday. We can’t wait to tell students in the year below what a great place Laos. Hopefully you can get many more students here in coming years to experience the important work done by the DLF & USYD with assistance from ACIAR, in addition to the work of other agencies in helping improve Lao smallholder livelihoods.”

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