The COVID-19 pandemic saw people around the world subjected to the kinds of restrictions and mandatory practices common to the control of animal diseases. Travel limits were imposed, markets were closed and trade was restricted. New hygiene requirements were enforced and vaccinations became mandatory in many countries.
But disrupted markets and reduced economic activity, along with the loss of jobs and livelihoods, have led to rising poverty and food insecurity, along with increasing physical and mental health issues. Low-income to middle-income countries are most severely affected.
Dr Anna Okello, ACIAR Research Program Manager, Livestock Systems, states that COVID-19 puts a very human spin on the challenges that many people working in animal health regularly face: is the impact of the disease equal to or worse than the impact of the control measures? What can be done instead to prevent disease?
Dr Okello sees a One Health approach as key to answering such questions. One Health is based on the interconnectedness of humans, animals and ecosystems. It looks at systems in a holistic way, including agrifood systems, to recognise that improving the health of one improves the health of all.
Preventing the spread of zoonotic diseases (diseases and infections transmitted between vertebrate animals and people) is an important aspect of One Health, but so too is the broader health and productivity of livestock and the impacts of this on both people and the planet.
Dr Okello said many new diseases were emerging as the relationships between people, animals and the environment changed.
‘Human populations have grown into new geographic areas, more people are living in close contact with domestic animals, and deforestation and intensive farming practices have disrupted biodiversity and habitats. This provides new opportunities for diseases to pass between animals and people.
‘When animal diseases get into the human domain, people take them seriously. But when animal diseases are circulating among animal species, it’s very hard to get funding for preventative measures,’ said Dr Okello.
To address this, much of the ACIAR livestock systems research program is focused around generating evidence to promote the business case for investment in animal health services. One Health, as a concept, is part of that business case.
Dr Anna Okello,
ACIAR Research Program Manager, Livestock Systems
Traditional market challenges and opportunities
Traditional or wet markets offer an example of the complex interactions between people, animals and the broader environment. There are many forms of traditional markets around the world but they are essentially farmers’ markets where fresh produce and meat are sold.
Original reports that COVID-19 may have emerged at a traditional market as a consequence of zoonotic transmission heightened concerns about the health risks these markets represent. As part of a rapid research impact series commissioned in 2020, one ACIAR study looked at the role of traditional markets within local communities and the impacts of COVID-19 controls on this role.
The project was led by medical anthropologist Dr Kevin Bardosh, a United States-based research associate with RMIT University, Australia. His team examined traditional markets in Kenya, the Philippines and Vietnam as case studies.
Dr Bardosh said there is a perception that the wildlife trade is typically the major source for disease risk at traditional markets, but this is increasingly regulated. He said greater health risks come from increasingly intensified livestock farming systems with little veterinary oversight and from inadequate food safety practices.
Also, many traditional markets have been modernised in recent years, improving their cleanliness and appearance with improved sanitation and waste services. The aim is to improve the customer experience as markets compete with supermarkets and online trading.
‘This has an important positive effect on disease control, although it is not the primary objective of the improvements,’ said Dr Bardosh. He points out that these upgrades align with an improving socioeconomic trend in a region, which might result from other larger development programs not associated with health measures.
Traditional markets offering access to fresh food social interaction and income and are a source of health, food security and sociocultural wellbeing for many people, rather than a source of risk and disease.
Looking at the impacts of COVID-19 policies, Dr Bardosh said the Philippines prioritised its food systems as an essential service early in the pandemic. Therefore, there were fewer disruptions to markets and food supply systems, despite strict lockdowns across the country.
In Kenya, there were generally fewer restrictions overall, although two lockdowns did disrupt market operations and trade. Vietnam pursued ‘zero-COVID’ policies, which created significant disruptions to food supply chains. Markets were closed for months at a time, followed by snap closures related to changing COVID-19 case numbers, creating difficulties along the entire food supply chain.
Dr Bardosh also highlighted grey areas between regulations, enforcement and the practicalities of producing and buying food. These include inconsistent enforcement and punitive approaches that can reduce trust and lead people to circumnavigate the rules meant to protect them. Dr Bardosh is now involved in a follow-on ACIAR-supported project, a high-level consortium on global animal health governance, to identify policy gaps and alternative policy approaches.
Global burden of animal diseases
ACIAR is also a partner in an international initiative to determine the Global Burden of Animal Diseases (GBADs). It is modelled on the Global Burden of Disease for human health, which ranks and prioritises human health conditions that have the greatest burden on society, helping to direct international investment to achieve the greatest health outcomes.
The GBADs initiative, primarily funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, involves an international consortium, led by the University of Liverpool in the UK. Phase one is developing the metrics to measure which animal diseases have the most economic impact.
ACIAR is supporting a case study in Indonesia to help develop the GBADs assessments. CSIRO livestock scientist Dr Dianne Mayberry is a member of the GBADs executive committee and is leading the Indonesian case study for ACIAR.
Dr Mayberry provided an overview of the project at the international TropAg conference in Brisbane, in November, highlighting the constant pressure on livestock from communicable and non-communicable diseases, inadequate access to feed and clean water, injuries and predation. These all affect the productivity and value of animals and the quality of animal products.
This contributes to declines in human health through the transmission of diseases and foodborne pathogens and malnutrition, as families had less food or were unable to buy food as a result of lost income. There were also many other multiplier effects of animal disease on smallholder households, given the large number of social, cultural and economic roles that livestock play in rural and peri-urban communities.
‘At a global level, poor animal health can contribute to climate change and environmental degradation as more resources are required and more greenhouse gases are committed to produce a unit of output,’ said Dr Mayberry.
Indonesian case study
The Indonesian case study will focus on poultry and dairy production systems in West Java, beef cattle in East Java and pigs in East Nusa Tenggara, as being representative of the diverse production systems
across the country, ranging from smallholder farmers to large corporate enterprises.
At the Indonesian National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), Dr Harimurti Nuradji is head of the Research Centre for Veterinary Science, Research Organization for Health and is a partner in the research to fill the knowledge gaps about the burden of animal disease in Indonesia.
‘I believe biosecurity is the best way to defend against diseases. We have to prevent, rather than control, disease,’ said Dr Nuradji. ‘We are looking at animal numbers and production systems, the number of diseases, and also the social, economic and political aspects.’
He said the support from ACIAR for the project is providing a valuable exchange of expertise and experience for Australian and Indonesian researchers. ‘We can share information and knowledge to prevent disease, not just for us, but for Australia as well, by better understanding the disease systems in Asia,’ said Dr Nuradji.
ACIAR PROJECT: ‘Rapid Impact Survey on the role wet markets in Philippines, Kenya Vietnam’ (LS/2020/204), ‘Global Burden of Animal Disease Initiative: Indonesia Health Study’ (LS/2020/156)