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Lessons on Biosecurity from Covid-19

Prof Emeritus Peter Windsor

A very quiet Phnom Penh river front

It’s now mid-April 2021, and citizens of many countries around the world remain in relative isolation, having adopted a huge behavioural change to reduce the risks of being infected by the Covid-19 virus. The priority intervention in controlling pandemic and epidemic disease is enhanced biosecurity, with effective quarantine and movement controls necessary to prevent transmission between the infected and susceptible populations. There has been impressive compliance with this within Australia, where life has been pretty much back to normal for a considerable time now. Mass gatherings for sporting events and even music festivals are now permitted as recent cases of Covid-19 have been confined within the quarantine hotels and restricted to returning citizens from overseas.

However, in most countries, the need for people to socialise has been overwhelming, and Covid-19 outbreaks have readily spun out of control. Globally, the statistics remain alarming, with currently over 141million people having been infected with over 3.1million deaths. Fortunately, vaccination programs are now rolling out worldwide, bringing increasing optimism that life in other countries will also be returning to ‘normal’ before too long. The vaccination program is essential for Cambodia, as it is currently in ‘lockdown’ with the streets of Phnom Penh largely deserted in an attempt to reduce virus transmission. As Covid-19 surveillance in most countries is ‘passive’ and relies on reporting of clinical cases, there are always concerns of under-reporting and that the actual prevalence is higher than the number of cases reported daily. Surveillance through the testing of sewage for molecular remnants of Covid-19 has been adopted in Australia to create a more ‘active’ surveillance system that provides an early warning of where unrecognised infection may be occurring.

Training programs on biosecurity as part of Good Animal Husbandry Practice (GAHP) is essential in the Mekong due to high risks of TADs

The Covid-19 experience has increased the global understanding of ‘biosecurity in action’. There has been much discussion and debate in most households and regularly in the media on ways to improve the effectiveness of quarantine & human movement controls, methods for increasing levels of disease surveillance and reporting, and more recently, challenges with vaccination efficacy. A feature of the pandemic is the overwhelming public awareness of these issues. Covid-19 has certainly reinforced understanding of the four key interventions required for transboundary disease (TAD) control programs into sharp focus: quarantine/movement control, surveillance, vaccination and public awareness. However, what does this global understanding of these interventions for a human disease (albeit having likely originated from wildlife transmission) mean for the understanding of TAD control in livestock populations? These interventions were successfully applied in Indonesia and then The Philippines to eradicate Foot-and-Mouth-Disease (FMD). However, despite many efforts to transport these lessons to the Mekong region, FMD remains out of control and the region at significant risk of TAD incursions, as has occurred with African Swine Fever (ASF).  The history of the FMD challenges in Se Asia has been reviewed: doi:10.1017/S0950268819000578.

Cattle held in a feedlot northern Laos prior to transport to China

Much of the impetus for improving livestock disease control in the Mekong is the demand for red meat in China, producing an annual movement of over a million cattle from Myanmar and elsewhere into China, with many passing through northern Laos. China is seeking to reduce the risks of TADs and FMD, particularly from this trade, with discussion on creating a Disease Control Zone (DCZ) in border provinces. With recent political upheavals in Myanmar, the status of a DCZ proposal there is uncertain. However, in Laos, efforts to progress this initiative and work conducted in Laos in the last decade suggest this may be achievable. A preliminary attempt to collaboratively work towards the first FMD DCZ in the Mekong was the efforts in northern Laos 2012 and 2016 when over 1.6million doses of FMD vaccine were administered across the northern provinces, supported by OIE through SEACFMD program support (i.e. STANDZ funded program from Australia). This program appeared effective in suppressing clinical FMD, although when the donor funds for vaccine expired, the disease re-emerged in 2017. Many lessons were learned from this program, as were documented in the paper: doi:10.1017/S0950268818002443.

Cattle trade across the Mekong destined for China via northern Laos

An important lesson from these mass vaccination programs was that sustainability of vaccination for prolonged FMD suppression is critical and is likely a >10yr commitment. As described in the final paragraphs of this paper, another key lesson was that there was insufficient time budgeted for the village visits, both to reach enough of the livestock population receiving the vaccine and the training of farmers on improving village-level biosecurity. A recommendation was that the first issue could be resolved by an extra vaccine day/site and the second by holding biosecurity information meetings separate from the vaccine day(s). Gender issues were also an important consideration. As females dominate the household finances, we have learned the importance of separate meetings with females to ensure they were aware of what the program was all about and that livestock biosecurity is a family household sustainability and resilience activity. Finally, closing the porous unregulated border areas for animal movement, improving the surveillance capacity, and developing an emergency disease response capability are essential components for developing an effective DCZ in the Mekong, described in detail in the FMD eradication program in The Philippines:  doi:10.1111/j.1865-1682.2011.01225.

It is hoped that the important lessons from Covid-19 awareness can also assist understanding of disease control in animal populations and result in more sustainable progress in achieving TAD control, particularly for FMD in the Mekong region.

Motivating health interventions in the smallholder livestock sector in developing countries

Peter Windsor

Professor Emeritus, The University of Sydney

peter.windsor@sydney.edu.au

Enhancing livestock farming in developing countries is widely recognised as an important pathway in the amelioration of rural poverty. However, livestock diseases threaten the lives and livelihoods of the often marginalised people in rural communities that depend on their animals as ‘cash banks’, for manure as fertiliser and for food and often transport. Importantly, animal diseases pose significant risks to both farmers land the global human population, particularly when animal pathogens cross species barriers into humans; the most common source of new human epidemics.  To control animal diseases, policy makers often focus on achieving behavioural change by individual farmers, mostly by promoting knowledge-based interventions that encourage adoption of vaccination, biosecurity and parasite control. Sadly,  often these programs simply fail.

We have now conducted ongoing applied field research for over 1.5 decades in Cambodia and Laos, documenting the systematic constraints that influence the understanding by farmers of disease-related risks. We have learned much about the risks to smallholder livestock and also the household-level decisions involved in investing in animal disease control. That us where our gender studies have been particularly useful, confirming that as women largely control the finances they need to be deeply engaged in understanding that healthy livestock mean healthy families.    

Our work has involved numerous longitudinal livestock production and health studies and participatory observations. These have been accompanied by in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with farming families, plus socioeconomic investigations in numerous research site villages in both countries. This has occurred despite the structural constraints of weak veterinary health and rural extension systems, plus the limited access of farmers to low-interest credit. These constraints prohibit farmers from gaining the necessary knowledge and resources for disease prevention, increasing their economic vulnerability. Such constraints also drive behaviours that are recognised as often ‘high risk’  for disease emergence and spread (eg sale of diseased stock; failure to implement quarantine & hygiene). These behaviours lead to many small- and medium-scale farmers in low- and middle-income countries, remaining trapped in a cycle of poverty, poor productivity and commonly, ill health for both animals and humans.

Our experience in Cambodia and Laos, is that whilst it is very challenging to address these issues, it is vitally important to understand the motivations of smallholder farmers, if disease impacts are to be sustainably ameliorated. It is necessary to understand that many farmers still consider disease outbreaks as an ‘act of god’ and their control as unmanageable, or a government responsibility.  However, we have learned that whilst the knowledge required to control disease is mostly about implementing risk management interventions (eg vaccination & biosecurity), these are not recognised by farmers as ways for them to make money. This means that many disease control programs have and will continue to fail as they are considered by farmers to be unnecessary and/or unaffordable.

Figure 1. Cattle in Cambodia improving by forage feeding

Our ongoing work suggests that the key to understanding how to properly implement animal health programs, is understanding how to insert the motivations into rural communities that enable farmers to make money from their livestock. This requires leveraging livestock interventions to the expanding demand for animal sourced foods (ASF) in the rehion. Also, it often involves work that is outside of the immediate disciplines of animal health personnel involved, so it is often incomplete or of insufficient priority (eg nutritional & marketing interventions). The experiential learning we acquired was that once money was being made by smallholder farmers from feeding their animals properly, they began to understand that they should protect this ‘investment’ of time and labour. They become more receptive to the necessary health interventions they need to adopt that protect their livestock and increasing wealth.

Figure 2. MNB’s for cattle in northern Laos have been a very successful intervention.

This experience was first observed in the successful Foot-and-Mouth Disease eradication program in the Philippines in 1998-99. There it was found that whilst training on biosecurity was considered important, the  majority of farmers really just wanted to know how to feed their pigs better. They mostly used table scraps (aka swill) properly and safely (by cooking waste meat products), to enable them to obtain more money from their pigs. Similarly with Cambodian cattle from 2007, forages were introduced for feeding and fattening of cattle. This took several years to establish, but eventually proved to be very successful in motivating farmers to adopt change. The changes resulted in the development of a robust market for forages for cattle feeding, and had important socioeconomic impacts for rural families through time-savings for feeding their animals. Numerous families in our research programs are now able to afford to send their children to university from the funds achieved from moving from subsistence smallholders to productive small-medium cattle raising enterprises.

Figure 3. Typical project workshop in Laos aimed at equipping local extension staff with skills to assist change management in livestock agriculture

However, different interventions work differently in different contexts. We have recently observed that high-quality molasses nutrient blocks (MNBs) are excellent for motivating farmers in northern Laos. In Laos in 2008, we had more difficulties in establishing and using forages, largely due to widespread availability of grazing, compared to southern Laos and Cambodia. Farmers have found that the MNBs helped them greatly in the management of their animals. The cattle and buffalo returned from grazing in the fields and forests more readily, seeking the evening ‘sweetie’ of the blocks. These farmers are all happy to now purchase blocks as animals were calmer, fatter and more valuable. In both these situations, the farmers then became motivated to adopt ‘risk management’ and were willing to purchase appropriate disease preventive vaccines and therapies, plus even adopt biosecurity interventions. A MNB manufacturing facility is now under construction in northern Laos with MNB’s being distributed to farmers by a newly established nutrition company AgCoTech, that aims to leverage the improved productivity gains in smallholder livestock as carbon credits in managing greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation. 

Figure 4. MLR Project Officer Isabel MacPhilamy inspects a project-supported forage crop in the central Laos province of Savannakhet

The very important lessons from this work for animal health program managers, is that to stimulate behavioural change by mostly uneducated farmers, one needs to find the intervention(s) that provide motivation for change. When the productivity change starts to happen, resulting in improved food security and poverty amelioration, the addition of the health interventions can commence. Eventually, this ‘step by step’ improvements in animal production are leading to better animal health, farming family livelihoods, and hopefully, animal welfare. Then there are added benefits for our environment from reduced GHG’s as the multiple interventions leading to significant improvements in productivity, also reduce the GHG emissions footprint from these animals.

Figure 5. Prof Peter Windsor explaining how to improve cattle reproduction to Cambodian extension staff

This blog describes a most important process, being the transformation of subsistence livestock agriculture to sustainable enterprises. Change management in livestock production is exciting work, with many creative opportunities for all involved.

You are what you eat: Why inclusivity in agricultural extension programs is important

 

Written by: Francesca Earp

There is an excited energy in the town hall in Harpang Village in Luang Prabang this morning. The air in the hall is hot and dry and the room is filled with clouds of dust as children run around, kicking up their feet. It’s a village affair; every generation invited to join. There’re female farmers breast-feeding as they learn whilst male farmers bounce young children on their knee. A female farmer stands up to make a point to the group, handing her three-month child to a male farmer next to her as she stands. She is confident in her opinions and comfortable enough to share them despite her previous exclusion from such conversations. It’s a snapshot of village life; its busy, it’s loud and it’s inclusive.

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Team member Mr Bouakeo running the disease session of the farmer training program

This initiative is part of the Mekong Livestock Research teams inclusive farmer-training workshop. Inviting male and female farmers, and more often than not their children, to join us for farmer training sessions. Working to make extension activities a community event. The sessions focus on disease control, animal nutrition, livestock breeding and general husbandry.

The movement began with a two day ‘train the trainer’ session where we worked in partnership with the Laos Buffalo Dairy to run training workshop sessions where our trainers revised content, practiced new teaching techniques and discussed strategies for community involvement.

We have already completed the training in Luang Prabang and Xayabouli province visiting twenty villages over ten days. In total we have trained 194 female farmers and 232 male farmers. In Nanonghoung Village in Xayabouli province we had an astonishing 49 female farmers attending the session. The team has since begun training in Xieng Khoung province.

The use of large image based flipcharts has proved to be a successful tool for smallholder farmer training. In particular the use of images and diagrams in the disease section has allowed farmers to recognize and identify what diseases they have previously seen on their farms. This has meant that the training sessions have become a group discussion about the lessons learnt from past disease outbreaks and their control.

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Team members Mr Bouakeo and Mr Kong with the training flipcharts

So the question remains ‘why is it so important that training sessions focus on inclusivity?’ The answer is simple; it matters because she matters. Historically, women are the financial decision makers for their families, controlling income and family assets. A deep seeded patriarchal view of ‘agricultural input’ means that this is often considered as ‘less valuable input’. These persistent masculine stereotypes result in a male dominant food industry where the contributions and involvement of the female farmer fails to be considered. In recent years international NGOs and aid organizations have identified gender inequality within the agricultural sector as one of the most pervasive threats to food security and development. Acknowledging that the proper engagement of female farmers in food insecure areas could result in enhanced nutrition, socio-economic wellness and poverty reduction.

Processed with Rookie Cam

Female farmers with their children at the training session

Previously when we have suggested the inclusion of female farmers in training programs we have been advised that she would be too busy and would not be interested in attending. In order to overcome this we ensured that the female farmer knew that both her and her children were invited to the session. By allowing her to bring her children she is able to attend the session and watch her children at the same time, something she was previously unable to do. During the session a stream of female farmers would flow in, often after they had noticed other female farmers attending and speaking.

In addition to promoting female farmer attendance the inclusion of children has its own benefit. Our recent Focus Group Discussion sessions indicated the child often plays an important role in livestock rearing with a majority of them assisting in large ruminant care. However, despite this involvement they are rarely included in farmer training activities. By inviting them to join they are also able to listen and learn from the sessions.

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Team members Mr Khamphut and Franny with some of the children joining the farmer training session in Luang Prabang

Smallholder farming involves the whole family. The farm is just as much a way of life as it is a form of livelihood. By creating sessions where everyone feels comfortable and relaxed we are transitioning farmer training from the ‘classroom’ to everyday life. Making livestock health conversations a regularity and improving farmer adoption of disease mitigation techniques.

A gender balanced and inclusive agricultural system will in turn help to create a gender equitable world far beyond the farms fence. Food production and extension programs that promote equality will create equality, because after all you are what you eat.

Working with smallholder farming families, their livestock and FMD viruses in the Mekong & beyond

Peter Windsor, Isabel MacPhillamy, Francesca Earp

In our efforts to understanding how to improve livelihoods in rural SE Asia & regional food security, we are assisting the transition of some subsistence smallholder farmers from poverty to a more viable and sustainable livelihood through investing in improved livestock productivity. This work is focused on what motivates farmers to change their husbandry practices, including better feeding, preventative health & welfare, and improved household financial resilience. The collaborative work has been almost continuous since 2007 in the Mekong, supported by ACIAR-funded projects now completed in Cambodia & nearing completion in Laos, plus a DFAT Business Partnership Platform project that is current in Laos under a recently revised MOU between the partners (Figure 1). Fortunately we have been able to value-add these funding sources by successfully seeking numerous additional sources of support, including the Crawford Fund for field officer extension training, the New Colombo Plan for student participation, John Alwright, John Dillon and Australian Government Fellowship Awards for assisting Mekong scholars, plus collaborations with international agencies (eg OIE, ADB) and universities.

Figure 1: BPP partners Mr Chick Olsson, Dr Syseng Khounsy and Prof Peter Windsor display the revised MOU (Photo: Peter Windsor)

Our work has been examining, through various socioeconomic survey techniques and measures of cattle and buffalo husbandry, health and production, the best interventions for collaborating smallholder farmers to adopt, whilst assisting us to address gender issues on smallholder farms.

The introduction of forage systems and more recently, molasses feed blocks, decreases the work load of ‘cut & carry’ feeding due to ease of supplying readily available nutrition of improved quantity & quality, creating more time for other work/activities and more easily managed livestock. Lao farmers are impressed by the ease of mustering cattle back to villages for overnight housing as the animals seek access to nutrient supplementation blocks containing molasses (Figure 2).  As of mid-November the BPP has moved into a commercial pilot stage that is testing the marketability of blocks to farmers, particularly those that participated in previous efficacy trials and appreciate the production benefits achieved by enhanced nutrition. These blocks are now readily available from the SK Vet Clinic in Luang Prabang (Figure 3 & 4), along with project handbooks on livestock husbandry, reproduction and biosecurity.

Figure 2: Cattle & buffalo readily seek access to nutrient supplementation blocks containing molasses (Photo: Peter Windsor)
Figure 3: Sign indicating availability of molasses blocks from the SK Vet Clinic in Luang Prabang, Laos (Photo: Peter Windsor)
Figure 4: Sale of first molasses blocks to farmers in Luang Prabang province (Photo: Peter Windsor)

Farmers have also been impressed with how calf mortality is controlled by simply deworming neonates for the roundworm Toxocara vitulorm and that regular vaccination protects against mortality and morbidity from Haemorrhagic septicaemia and Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD). More recently, they have been impressed that treatment of FMD lesions with a simple spray of the wound therapy Tri-Solfen provides relief from suffering, hastening healing and saving on the costs of not treating animals with expensive and unnecessary antibiotics (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Lao buffalo treated for FMD due to an outbreak resulting from insufficient vaccine and biosecurity (Photo: Chick Olsson)

A very important component of our work is to let the scientific community know of the impact of the research and sharing the findings as they may be of benefit to other development programs throughout the world. Our MLR team member and PhD candidate Franny Earp, who has been living in Laos much of this year, recently won a presenters award at the ISESSAH (International Society of the Economics and Social Sciences of Animal Health) South East Asia Conference, in Bogor, Indonesia, October 17-18 (Figure 6). This followed her presentation on aspects of socioeconomic modelling of preventative health options data from our projects in Laos, as part of her PhD.

Figure 6: Ms Franny Earp recent winner of a presenters award at the ISESSAH Conference in Bogor (Photo: Helen Scott-Orr)

Even more recently, MLR team members Isabel MacPhillamy (Figure 7) and Peter Windsor presented papers at the GFRA (Global FMD Research Alliance) 2019 scientific meeting, in Bangkok, Thailand, October 29-31, discussing all things FMD. Isabel addressed the current challenges in implementing effective biosecurity on smallholder farms in the Mekong. Peter introduced the recent findings from Laos on the use of Tri-Solfen as a novel treatment for FMD, suggesting the likelihood that this approach should be part of more effective strategies to reduce antimicrobial use in livestock and limit the serious risk to the human population from AMR (antimicrobial resistance). The Australian company that produces this product (Medical Ethics; ME) agreed to be sponsors of the conference and the ME desk was very well attended. During the meeting, images were received of cattle with FMD in Nigeria also having been treated (Figure 8). A number of  conference attendees from other countries took home samples of the product for trials, including scientists from India, Bangladesh, Kenya and Cameroon. Already, cattle and sheep with FMD lesions in Cameroon have now received pain relief treatment for their FMD lesions.

Figure 7: Ms Isabel MacPhillamy presenting her paper on Biosecurity at the GFRA Meeting in Bangkok (Photo: Corissa Miller)
Figure 8: Cow in Nigeria with FMD oral lesions treated with Tri-Solfen (Photo: Peter Windsor)

Our extensive work in the Mekong has shown the importance of a systems approach that improves rural livelihoods through increased productivity, focused initially on enhancing nutrition and reducing mortality risk. As learning has continued in our programs, many farmers have continued to improve their livestock husbandry skills and have recognised that healthier more valuable livestock offer pathways for reducing food insecurity and improving rural community resilience. This applied research model from the Mekong, as is well documented on the MLR website under the Resources then Publications tabs
(https://mekonglivestock.wordpress.com/publications), provides ample evidence that where demand for beef remains strong, enhancing productivity leads to improved animal health and welfare outcomes, with better lives for farmers and their animals through reduced rural poverty. The work of the MLR group is now ready for scale-out!

Weathering the storms and droughts in Laos

Written by Francesca Earp

Edited by Peter Windsor

This time last year we were waist deep wading through rainwater to reach one of our project villages in Pak Ou district, Luang Prabang. Most of the year the village has easy access without the need for swimwear and goggles. Yet during the tropical monsoon wet season, usually spanning from late May through to November, these conditions change and Laos is known for its heavy rains and prolonged wet seasons. However, this year the wet season has failed to appear, and we are in the grip of one of the worst droughts to hit the country. Expert commentary suggests the 2019 drought could have long-lasting impacts, causing more damage to rural communities and the economy than the 2016 drought.

Francesca walking to a project village in Pak Ou district in June 2018

The Mekong River has recently hit new lows. Current measurements in Vientiane indicate the water level is now less than one meter; a dramatic seven meters lower than it normally is at this time. The contrast with our blog from the same time last year is astonishing: https://mekonglivestock.wordpress.com/2018/07/30/mekong-river-development-challenges-for-an-under-resourced-laos/

The current concerns began when the wet season rains that normally begin in late May failed to arrive and the Mekong River levels became progressively lower, minimizing the opportunities for the annual planting of rice crops. Scientists believe the current challenges facing Lao agriculture are a combination of the absence of the monsoonal rains as a result of an El Niño meteorological system, the increasing influence of the numerous hydropower dams operating upstream in the Mekong and its tributaries and climate change, resulting in what can only be described as a never ending dry season.

A major concern for Lao agriculture is that the impacts of the drought have been exacerbated by the growing influences of the rapidly expanding dam system along the Mekong river. With plans for a total of 11 mainstream dams and 120 tributary dams to be situated across the river, there is growing fear that the dams have already and are continuing to have dramatic and irreversible impacts on the biodiversity and useable resources of the Mekong River. A year ago, the integrity of the construction processes of these dams was questioned following the devastating dam collapse in Attapeu Province, in southern Laos. On the evening of the 23rd of July 2018, the dam being built as part of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy hydropower project collapsed, destroying dozens of villages with reports that over 7,000 Lao locals and several thousand Cambodians were forced to leave their homes due to the damage. The final death toll was reported as 49 although this is widely regarded as a dramatic underestimation. Just over one year later and over 5,000 villagers are still displaced and located in overcrowded camps.

The main agricultural impacts of the drought are a depleted rice harvest and a reduced fish population, from the low water levels resulting in fewer opportunities for rice planting and fish spawning. Approximately 40 percent of the regular rice crops have not been planted this season, due to the lack of rain. This will dramatically impact smallholder incomes as a majority of smallholder farmers rely on rice production. Results from our recent Focus Group Discussion sessions found that farmers often sold their livestock in emergency situations to gain extra income. A mass sale of cattle and buffalo can be predicted if the dry season continues to progress. This will also have long-term negative impacts on food security and household livelihoods.

Last week the Vientiane times reported that the drought is one of six problem issues currently impacting Laos. In addition to ongoing drought, the agricultural sector is also experiencing a devastating African Swine Fever (ASF) epidemic, sporadic Foot-and -Mouth Disease outbreaks, and an armyworm infestation in Xaybouly Province that has destroyed up to thirty percent of corn crops.

On Monday the 29th of July, some rain finally fell in our project sites, extending from Luang Prabang in the northern region to Savannakhet in the central region of the country.  These falls were accompanied by some minor flooding and a spectacular show of lighting and thunder. Locals who often complain about the length of the regular wet season celebrated the cool weather and rains that arrived that Monday.

Life in Laos, like in most of the least developed countries, can be difficult. However, the current issues impacting agriculture, health and the economy are a reminder of the importance of continuing long-term agricultural research and development projects to help improve food security, despite the severity of the challenges. We extend our sympathies to the farming families in Laos impacted by the drought, flooding, ASF outbreaks and armyworm infestations, and hope to see more rains fall in coming weeks.

SEACFMD meeting moves to Mongolia to address transboundary disease issues

Professor Emeritus Peter Windsor

The 22nd OIE SEACFMD National Coordinators Meeting was held in Ulaanbaatar, on 25-27 June 2019. This is an annual international regional meeting to exchange knowledge and discuss shared concerns about Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) surveillance and control. For several years the meeting has involved participants from both Southeast and East Asia, enabling a much broader understanding of the transboundary dynamics of FMD transmission from Myanmar through Malaysia to South and North Korea, with contributions from the FMD-free countries, from Indonesia and the Philippines through Taiwan to Japan (image 1). Australia and New Zealand have been major supporters of the SEACFMD program. This year the FMD focus was in an atmosphere of concern due to the disturbing emergence of another transboundary emerging disease (TBED) African Swine Fever (ASF) in the region, with recent incursions from China into Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. 

Image 1: SEACFMD Delegates in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 25-27 June, 2019

On the invitation of Dr Ronel Abila of the OIE office in Bangkok that organised the meeting, Peter Windsor had been invited to give an update on the work of the Sydney University (USYD) Mekong Livestock Research (MLR) team and discuss the recent findings of a new treatment for clinical FMD using Tri-Solfen (TS; manufactured by Medical Ethics/ME of Australia). At the meeting, Peter was accompanied by Allan Giffard and Charles Olsson of ME and also present was MLR team members Jim Young (Thermo-Fischer Pty Ltd) and Dr Syseng Khounsy (DLF, Lao PDR). Other friends and colleagues of the SEACFMD network included several Australians; USYD vet graduate Caitlin Holley of the OIE Office in Japan (image 2) plus Wilna Vosloo of CSIRO, and John Weaver of Weaver Consulting.

Image 2: L-R: Prof Peter Windsor, Dr Jim Young, Dr Caitlin Holley, Mr Allan Giffard, Mr Charles Olsson

Having only joined SEACFMD in recent years, this was the first time that Mongolia had hosted the meeting and for many, this was their first visit to this astonishing country. A highlight of the meeting was the afternoon bus tour on the 27th into rural areas that enabled participants to observe Mongolian raptors (image 3), climb the enormous Genghis Khan memorial statue (image 4) and visit the underlying museum (image 5). Participants then witnessed Mongolian wrestling (image 6) and archery, indulged in a BBQ of Mongolian lamb, accompanied by local vodka and the usual post-dinner national performances of song. With a reasonable Australian contingent, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ was well received yet again, although the abundance of spirit may have influenced the qualities of both the performance and appreciation. The return to Ulaanbaatar was via a nomadic rural village to observe the livestock (image 7), visit several gerts (yurts), and taste a variety of the local dairy products. This was a terrific insight into the richness of a Mongolian culture that is directly descended from the leader of the largest empire the world has ever seen whose descendents include an estimated >0.5% of the global male population. Mongolia currently has just over 3million inhabitants with almost 50% living in Ulaanbaatar. Sobering was the observed and reported challenges facing the nomadic Mongolian livestock agriculture, where increasing stocking rates have put unsustainable pressure on the limited grazing resources now available.

L-R: Image 3: Prof Peter Windsor with Mongolian Vulture, Image 4: Dr Tun Win (Myanmar), Mr Charles Olsson (ME, Aus), Dr Syseng Khounsy (Laos) and Prof Peter Windsor (MLR, Aus). Image 5: an exhibit from the Genghis Khan Museum

During the meeting Peter presented a talk on behalf of the MLR team and Dr Syseng Khounsy of the Lao PDR DLF, on the clinical treatment of FMD using TS. This was in the session from invited research partners, chaired by Dr Khounsy, that also included interesting talks by Cord Heuer from EpiVet at Massey University in NZ on interpretation of serological studies in Laos and Myanmar, plus Wilna Vosloo from AAHL at CSIRO in Geelong on importance of vaccine matching of currently circulating strains to available vaccines. In the presentation by Peter, the recent observations from Laos were discussed, where an easily deliverable and readily affordable pain relief and antisepsis option that is without antimicrobials, was found effective for animals suffering with clinical FMD was discovered. Peter provided background information on the development of TS  as an inexpensive farmer applied ‘spray-on‘ wound formulation registered in Australia for provision of analgesia, antisepsis and reduced healing times, in animals undergoing routine husbandry procedures, including initially mulesing and tail docking in sheep, plus castration, disbudding/dehorning and more recently, treatment of lameness in cattle. In northern Laos, 136 FMD-affected large ruminants with clinical FMD, had TS applied to their lesions, resulting in a rapid improvement in their demeanour and unanimous approval of the treatment by the livestock owners. As TS is without antimicrobials and has a pH of 2.7 it is virucidal, making this treatment a potentially important intervention that may reduce FMD transmission, improve animal welfare, and encourage livestock farmers to report FMD outbreaks as they seek a readily visible pain relief medication for their FMD-affected animals. Provision of TS to countries that see these benefits are in current negotiations.

L-R: Image 6: Mongolian wrestlers prepare for battle by invocation of the eagle; Image 7: Prof Peter Windsor assisting local children herd small ruminants into a fenced area for overnight protection

Our Mongolian hosts, in collaboration with the OIE offices in Bangkok and Tokyo, provided a wonderful experience for the participants attending this SEACFMD meeting, both for technical content and cultural learning. The conference dinner on the 26th was also a highlight that enabled many participants to communicate more freely about their aspirations for improving future food security and improving smallholder farmer livelihoods through managing FMD, ASF and other TBEDs in this most important part of the world (image 8).

Image 8: Delegates at the SEACFMD dinner.

A seat at the table: Gender studies and farmer focus group discussions in Lao PDR

By Francesca Earp

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Women of Sabusai village during their group discussion session 

I am sitting in a small concrete hall in Savannakhet, Southern Laos. Its 35 degrees outside, although due to the humidity it feels more like 40. The hall is filled with a circle of wooden chairs, each chair filled with a new face; sixteen female farmers, one female member of the Department of Livestock and Fisheries, two female members of the Rural Development Agency and myself. It’s not the first time I’ve sat in this hall, and it’s definitely not the first time I’ve heard the familiar bustle of Lao farmers answering questions on their livestock or their livelihoods. However it is the first time I’ve sat in this room and not been the only female present.

The room is filled with joyful chaos, a symphony of giggles, responses and exclamation as the women discuss their answers in depth. Their nervous energy is infectious. These are the women who I’ve seen sit silent in village meetings, the women who I’ve seen answer on their husbands behalf in survey discussions and the women whose absence I have noticed at farmer training sessions. Now here they are, present and with a voice.

Since March 2019 I have had the pleasure of working with Chanthalangsy, better known as See and her team at the Rural Development Agency (RDA) based in Vientiane, Laos. The Mekong Livestock Research group joined with the RDA team earlier this year to conduct group focus discussions with the aim of collecting both male and female perspectives on current issues affecting their livestock and productivity, and ultimately their livelihoods. These are lessons they have learnt from the project and things they would like to learn more about. In April 2019 we began to formally plan the focus groups. I spent a week in Vientiane working with See and her team to design questions for both group and individual discussions, plan village observation days and children inclusion activities.

On the 21st of May 2019 we conducted the first day of our focus group discussions in Savannakhet. We dispatched three teams made up of RDA staff, provincial and district staff and Department of Livestock and Fisheries representatives. The teams were spread across Kaison and Songkon district. I had the pleasure of joining a team visiting Sabusai village in the Songkon district. The first day was spent conducting group discussion for the male and female farmers and their children whilst the second day was spent observing the farmers, their farms and their day-to-day practices as well as conducting individual interviews. The final day of the trip was then spent working with the district and provincial staff.

Important lessons were learnt from these three days working in the field. In particular the lessons learnt in the female group discussions were novel, based on the voice they represented. Financial impact statement questionnaires conducted over 2018 and 2019, have indicated it is likely that in most smallholder households it is the female who is the financial decision maker of the family. She is typically the one to decide where and when money is spent, while also appearing to manage the family accounts.

Despite her crucial role in the farms finances it is often rare for her to receive any formal training on disease mitigation or farm production. By missing these vital sessions she is often unable to understand the purpose of various commonly used disease mitigation techniques such as vaccination, foot baths or the quarantining of sick and new animals. Not only does this limit the villages’ overall success with half of its population having a less developed understanding of biosecurity controls, but it also limits the likelihood of financial investment into these controls.

The lack of previous female farmer training became more evident as the trip went on. When asked questions on biosecurity in the group discussion session the female farmers who had otherwise been outspoken fell silent. They either had not been taught about biosecurity or they were not confident enough in their understanding to answer. They said the only information they had was handed down from their mothers and was not representative of any formal training. When asked if they would like to learn more about biosecurity the room resumed to its normal uproar, with the woman positively reacting to the thought of more specific targeted training.

This is truly my favourite part of working in country, getting the opportunity to witness the desire for education and extension that these farmers have. It gives me hope for the future and allows me to better understand our previous successes. We are working with farmers who want to understand, who want to produce more and who want disease free stock.

Another important aspect of the focus groups was the afternoon we spent working with the children once they had finished school. Here we conducted a shorter more interactive session where we had 14 children in attendance, with twelve of the fourteen being female. Again the children were a source of new information outlining both their mother and fathers role on the farm as well as their own. They also discussed the social cost of disease outbreaks, explaining what happens to the family when a disease outbreak occurs. Just like the inclusion of the female farmer it is important to include the children if we wish to get a realistic understanding of smallholder farmers and their farms. Engaging children in these conversations early allows us to foster their curiosity and promotes farmer uptake of interventions later in life.

By taking a stand to understand the female experience we are able to ask her important questions to evaluate her understanding and enthusiasm to attend future training events, as well as discussing her role within the farming system. The information from these focus group discussions will provide a more realistic understanding of the smallholder farmer for cost-benefit analysis and other research projects. Importantly, it will enable us to develop training programs that are a better fit for their audience, using female focused sessions that teach the female farmers about topics she is interested in and wishes to have better understand. This week was the first step in harnessing a whole new voice of the Lao farmer, and I am proud that she will fill many more seats in farmer discussions and trainings to come.

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Children of Sabusai village with RDA staff member Vieng during their group discussion session 

Success of a ‘new medicine’ for treating FMD: case report from Laos  

Peter Windsor, Isabel MacPhillamy, Francesca Earp

The University of Sydney

A report was received by Franny that on April 11th, of an outbreak of Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) occurring in large ruminants in Mueangkay village near Luang Prabang city in Luang Prabang province of Laos. This village provides buffalo ‘for rent’ to the local buffalo dairy for the unique buffalo dairy products now available in Luang Prabang. As Franny was leaving Laos for a short trip to home, she contacted Peter in Australia who immediately contacted Dr Syseng Khounsy of the Department of Livestock and Fisheries (DLF), our in-country leader of our ACIAR and DFAT funded projects in Laos. Dr Syseng then contacted DLF field staff who verified the report and  a team was assembled to visit the village, accompanied  by Mr Chick Olsson of 4 Seasons Pty Ltd. Chick was able to return to Luang Prabang from Bangkok where he was on his way home from a recent field visit with the MLR group, examining logistics of potential manufacture of molasses mineral blocks in Laos.

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Erosions of the nasal mucosa in a buffalo with FMD (Photo: Chick Olsson)

The team and Chick donned their PPA (personal protection attire) to minimise virus contamination, and visited the village on April 12th to examine animals, collect samples and to potentially treat the FMD lesions with the wound formulation Tri-Solfen. The outbreak involved 99 buffalo and 37 cows of a population of 194 buffalo and 44 cows, from 136 households. Clinical observations were that the normally quiet and passive animals were ‘upset’ and reluctant to move, with difficulty in restraining them by the ‘bleeding pole’ method commonly used in developing countries where cattle crushes are largely absent. Both vaccinated and unvaccinated buffalo and cattle were present and affected. Closer examination confirmed the presence of typical lesions of FMD, observed as moderate to severe ulcerations of the gums, nasal tissue and interdigital areas of the feet.

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An ‘upset’ buffalo with FMD resisting restraint (Photo: Chick Olsson)

All affected animals were treated with Tri-Solfen sprayed directly onto the oral and foot lesions. The spray coated the lesions without run-off, with total doses between 10-30ml applied per animal. They were extremely well tolerated by animals and farmers, the team, Chick and Peter who was observing via video link, noted that the therapy resulted in immediate   improvement in the demeanour and locomotion of the animals, with no adverse events observed. During follow-up interviews a week later, the farmers described how impressed they were that the treatment provided such a rapid improvement in behaviour that indicated a dramatic reduction in pain. ‘They also described that there was rapid improvement in the healing of the lesions, with animals able to eat within 2 days, and lesions having recovered within 3-5 days. This is considered a marked improvement from known disease progression and recovery times for FMD-affected animals. As of May 17th, this is the only known outbreak where Tri-Solfen has been used for FMD, although the Lao veterinary authorities have now registered the product for this purpose and further supplies have been delivered for use in further outbreaks.

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Severe ulceration of the gums in a buffalo with FMD (Photo: Chick Olsson)

Tri-Solfen® is a commercial wound therapy product developed in Australia (by Medical/Animal Ethics Pty Ltd) as a ‘spray and stay’ pain relief formulation for use by farmers on sheep, particularly during the mulesing operation that provides lifetime protection agains blowfly strike. It contains the local anaesthetics lidocaine hydrochloride (50g/L) and bupivacaine hydrochloride (5g/L), adrenalin (1:2000), and the antiseptic cetrimide (5g/L) in a gel base. As the components have short half lives and been commonly used as individual treatments by veterinarians for many years there is minimal risk of residues. In addition to this new registration for FMD in Laos, Tri-Solfen is registered for mulesing, castration and tail docking in sheep and dehorning and castration in cattle in Australia, plus disbudding in calves in New Zealand.

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Treating the oral lesions due to FMD in a buffalo with Tri-Solfen wound therapy spray (Photo: Chick Olsson)

Tri-Solfen has a pH of ~2.7 so has anti-viral activity that may limit virus transmission during outbreaks. However, it was the positive clinical impacts that were immediately recognised by farmers that most impressed the observers, with all affected animals in the village presented for examination and treatment with the ‘new medicine’. An intervention that encourages farmers to seek treatment, is likely to decrease the time taken for reporting of FMD and increase the proportion of the affected population presented for examination and treatment with an ‘easy to use’ topical antiviral medication. This is likely to improve disease reporting and response capacities of animal health authorities and may well influence the spread of the disease during outbreaks. Further, as Tri-Solfen does not contain antibiotics, it is a welcome alternative to the common practice of treating FMD with topical or injected antimicrobial drugs. Certainly, a ‘new medicine’ that minimises the suffering of FMD-affected animals, removes the risk of antimicrobial residues from therapy for FMD, and reduces the socioeconomic losses of farmers in Laos and potentially the many countries of the world where FMD is still an active threat to food security and trade, is a welcome discovery. The observations on April 12th near Luang Prabang, indicate the huge potential of Tri-Solfen in having a profoundly positive impact on the health and welfare of livestock-owning families and their animals in the future.

Things my father taught me: Understanding the fight for gender equality

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Female farmers in Savannakhet during their focus group discussion session

By Francesca Earp, Edited by Peter Windsor

Fifteen years ago at the age of seven I sat at my dining room table in Sydney and confidently told my parents “I don’t think I’m a feminist”. The comment was in reaction to dinnertime conversation about female activism, and at the time I think my answer was due to the comfort of my own upbringing. I was lucky to attend an all girls’ school, have a fair and understanding family and be brought up in a society that saw both men and women as equals. I remember the conversation well because it was the first time my parents actively disagreed with one of my beliefs. My father an academic gave a very clear response. He simply told me that if I cared about equal opportunity I was a feminist. If I thought I deserved to be considered on my merit and not my gender I was a feminist. He went on to explain that as a male in academia he saw that there was a gender imbalance, explaining that he saw men taking roles as professors, project leaders and other leadership roles while women generally were less likely to be given such opportunities. At the time I didn’t think too much about it, because I still lived in the world of equal education and equal opportunity.

Now fifteen years on I see a very different world. As a twenty-two year old female and a graduate animal scientist working in Laos with the University of Sydney and Department of Livestock and Fisheries research team, I consider myself a feminist, with strong beliefs on female farmer inclusion. The world I am part of here in Laos is different to the one my father had described. Here not all girls get the opportunity to attend school, females are not engaged in community conversations and women are not always viewed as equals. As I’ve grown up I have noticed that this is not only the situation in Laos it is a global problem. Despite conscious movements towards gender equality, we still live in a world where men dominate political parties, dictate laws on female anatomy and freedom and hold a strong majority of the leadership positions.

Worldwide men and women, some just like me, are realizing the fight for equality is not yet over. ‘Seeds of change’ have been planted and a movement is underway. Importantly this movement is also occurring in agriculture with many groups now understanding the best way to achieve food security is to educate, train and engage both male and female farmers. In farming communities men and women often hold different responsibilities and duties. In Laos financial studies have indicated that the women’s role often revolves around financial decision-making, small ruminant care and the education of children. These are all important roles and she too requires consideration in training and project engagement. Another important lesson learned in community visits is that the woman is often likely to be the one to pass on new information. This means that training of the female farmer will also contribute to improved community outreach and extension.

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Rural development Agency Laos team members discussing gender inequality

As part of this positive movement the Mekong Livestock Research group has initiated focus group discussions in project villages. These discussions enable us to engage with the female farmer, an individual who is often left out of the training and decision making process. The progress of these focus groups to date has been astounding with the first round occurring in Savannakhet province this week. The reception from both male and female farmers has shown that this sort of work is long overdue.

Female farmers in both group and individual discussions have been accessed, harnessing their voice and demonstrating the importance of their opinion. Based on the information gathered from these discussions we hope to develop targeted female training and continued female inclusion. Not only have we communicated with the female farmer but we have also engaged the family, especially the children. We asked them to share their views of the roles of their parents within the farming system. As well contributing to research, the answers to these questions ensure children can reflect on their family. Fostering an understanding of the important roles both their mothers and fathers have in the smallholder farm.

I am fortunate to have been brought up with parents who understood the inequality women still face, and am lucky to work with a research team passionate about making positive change. A movement is happening and gender equality is on its way. I look forward to living in a world where women are enabled to help manage the challenges of creating a better world.

Farmer Benefits from project participation in Laos: Case Study from Luang Prabang

Nichola Calvani, PhD student, The University of Sydney

Edited by Professor Emeritus Peter Windsor

Located an hour out of town in Luang Prabang on the way to Kuang Si waterfall is Ban Phaksi, a beautiful village surrounded by turquoise streams and rivers sourced from the magnificent falls themselves, a popular tourist attraction in northern Laos. Here, Mr Heuan shares some land with his brother-in-law, Mr Home, where he grows rice for his family and forage for his cattle.

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Photo: Mr Heaun (right) being interviewed by PhD student Nichola Calvani with help from Lao DLF Staff Mr Bouakeo Phanphouma and Mr Phoud Thammavong (Photo: Nichola Calvani)

Mr Heuan has been working with The University of Sydney and The Lao Department of Livestock and Fisheries (DLF) under their co-run ACIAR-funded (Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research) project aimed at improving biosecurity and disease control for improved marketing of cattle  (ACIAR AH2012/068). He remembers the commencement of the project in 2015 very well as it started the positive changes to his farming practices. He was even able to quote the exact date he commenced in the project to University of Sydney PhD student, Nichola Calvani. Nichola was at the farm to sample his cattle for evidence of infestation by liver fluke (Fasciola spp.). This work aims to develop a new approach to parasite control, via use of medicated nutrient blocks for cattle. In addition to initial ACIAR support, the work is now supported by the ‘Business Partnership Platform’ (BPP) project funded by DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade). Mr Heuan advised:

 When the project first started I had 13 cattle. Now I have 46”.

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Photo: Mr Heuan watches his cattle return to the forest after sampling during their involvement in the BPP-funded medicated molasses block trial for the control of liver fluke (Photo: Nichola Calvani)

This enormous increase in his herd in the last 4 years, was assisted by biosecurity and other training, plus animal management interventions. It enabled him to sell more cattle each year, with more calves on the ground and surviving each season. Mr Heuan was then able to buy a better quality bull by selling some of his cows, and now grows forages to support their nutritional demands. This is particularly important in the dry season when he is able to sell more high-quality animals more frequently. His involvement with the project has meant that, according to Heuan:

My son could study and I was able to sell some cows to pay for his wedding”.

image 3Photo: Mr Heuan (left) and Mr Home (right) being interviewed by PhD student Nichola Calvani and Lao team member Mr Bouakeo Phanphouma (Photo: Nichola Calvani)

Mr Heuan learned the importance of biosecurity and vaccinations to prevent disease, which he claimed was the most important factor allowing him to rapidly grow his herd. His brother-in-law, Mr Home, with whom he shares grazing land for his cattle, has also benefitted from his involvement with the project, advising:

When the project started I had 4 or 5 cows and 6 buffalo. I sold my buffalo to buy more cattle and I now have 15 animals”.

image 5Photo: Mr Heuan and Mr Home’s cattle in their home-made bamboo cattle race (Photo: Nichola Calvani)

This may not seem like such a significant increase when compared to his brother-in-law, but this figure does not account for the large number of animals that he is now able to sell each year to help provide cash for his young family. Mr Home said:

My cows are now strong and fat, with no disease, so they are worth more money than before”

Together they now own more land than when they first started working with the project, and Mr Home hopes to invest in growing forage in the future, having observed the benefits on the farm of his brother-in-law. Both of their wives also contribute to the management of their animals, with neither needing to do external work, allowing them to spend more time raising their children and managing their households.

image 6Photo: Mr Home’s wife watches over their child playing with some of the many calves born this season (Photo: Nichola Calvani)

The two families have been impressed with their involvement in the BPP project, using both medicated and un-medicated molasses feed supplement blocks to control liver fluke and improve nutrient supply, provided by the Brisbane-based company Four Seasons Pty Ltd. Prior to this project, both were previously unaware that liver fluke was endemic on their farm, although Mr Home had noted that he had seen ‘leaves’ (fluke parasites) in the livers of their cattle and at social events such as weddings, but had never considered this to be a detriment to production or danger to human health. Since working with the project, they have both learned the importance of controlling for liver fluke and other parasites, particularly Toxocara vitulorum in newborn calves. They now appreciate the benefits of pyrantel administration in young calves allowing their survival, with more calves and increased growth rates.

image 7Photo: Mr Heuan drives a shipment of molasses feed supplement block across one of the turquoise blue rivers running through their property (Photo: Nichola Calvani)

They also noted that not only has supplementation with the blocks made their animals stronger and healthier, but they now come back from free-grazing in the forest more willingly. Both expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to work with both the ACIAR and BPP-funded projects. They agreed that they hoped to continue working with the DLF in the future to keep growing their herds, while learning more about how to keep them happy, healthy and profitable.

image 8Photo: Mr Home, Mr Heuan and their families with PhD student Nichola Calvani, DLF staff member Mr Phoud Thammavong and two University of Sydney honours students, Maddison Pearce and April McElligott (Photo: Nichola Calvani)