Actually, quite a lot.
A major component of our work here in Mukurewe-ini, Kenya, this year is teaching dairy farmers about zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be shared between people and animals), and how to prevent them. We focus on some of the most serious zoonotic diseases that are of greater concern in central Kenya: rabies, anthrax, rift valley fever, brucella, bovine tuberculosis, and internal parasites and other diarrhea causing pathogens. The most interesting part of teaching these seminars is that some of the farmers have already experienced some of these diseases – in themselves, their animals, or in their community.
Stories of people getting sick from slaughtering and eating an animal with anthrax are not uncommon. A friend a farmer knows cuts themselves with a knife they were using to butcher a cow that died (due to anthrax); the wound becomes infected; the rest of the family that ate that meat were hospitalized shortly after. Others know people in their community who died from anthrax after slaughtering a sick or deceased cow. It is also not uncommon to hear of people who went to the hospital for treatment when they became ill with a disease they contracted through drinking their cow’s raw milk (which can contain pathogens like brucella). Farmers are heavily dependent on their livestock as a source of food and income. When an animal dies due to disease the financial loss and subsequent food insecurity causes a considerable negative impact. For these reasons sick or deceased animals will be used as food unless farmers are made aware of risks, and supports are in place to improve food security by preventing animal disease in the first place.
Perhaps the saddest of stories we hear though, are the ones about rabies. During the time that we have been working in Kenya, multiple human rabies fatalities have been reported. In Kisumu County, about 6 hours from Mukurwe-ini, two children died of dog bites, in addition to several other people who were affected. The parents of the children were unable to afford the rabies treatment at the hospital, and instead opted to take them to an herbalist. When they returned to the hospital, the rabies treatment was out of stock. Both children died within days. In a neighbouring county to Mukurwe-ini, Murang’a, an outbreak occurred last summer, where a three-year-old boy succumbed to rabies. This is why we also teach seminars in schools to children about rabies prevention. In our sessions, they learn what the disease is, how they can get it, how to safely interact with dogs to avoid dog bites, and what to do in the case that they are bitten by a dog. We also teach safety around cows, and how to avoid getting other zoonotic diseases from the animals on their farms. The reception from teachers and students alike are often strong – most everyone comes from a farming background in this area, and everyone comes into contact with roaming dogs in the community. Teachers and students often express how they have learned new, practical, advice from the sessions.
So how does this tie into the One Health? And what is One Health?
The One Health approach recognizes that animals, people, and the environment are all interconnected. This approach understands that for a population to thrive, the animals in it and the environment that supports it must also be healthy. It is a critical problem-solving approach, as the same diseases that infect people live either within the environment or the animal population. For example, rabies in Kenya is best prevented in people by vaccinating dogs against the disease. Anthrax is controlled in populations by vaccinating cows against the disease in regions where it is prevalent, which prevents the spread of the bacteria amongst animals, to people, and also back into the soil, where it can survive for decades.
Teaching farmers and kids about the risks of zoonotic diseases empowers them with the knowledge to prevent these diseases in themselves and their animals. Reducing outbreaks of these diseases in animals reduces the likelihood that people will be infected, and vice versa. If the majority of dogs in Kenya were vaccinated against rabies, rabies deaths in people would become very rare. If at risk cows were vaccinated against anthrax, the incidence of anthrax infections in people would also be reduced. There would be fewer bacterial spores introduced into the soil, and fewer animals would be infected in the future, slowing the cycle of anthrax infections in Kenya’s domestic animal and wildlife populations. By alleviating animal suffering, we are also alleviating human suffering.
Zoonoses risk is not exclusive to Kenya. Rabies has always posed a public health threat in Canada; however, the major risk is in wildlife populations as compared to dogs in Kenya. Most recently, the death of a British Columbia man from an infected bat bite made national headlines. The One Health concept doesn’t just apply to Kenya; in Canada, healthy wildlife and pets protects the health of humans, especially in the case of rabies. The One Health approach transcends borders and economic status.
With many farmers in Kenya still engaging in practices such as drinking raw milk, eating sick or dead animals, and not safely handling sick animals, the need for zoonotic disease training is an important step to reduce the burden of zoonotic diseases. Improving animal and human health improves productivity, which increases financial stability. People who are caught in a cycle of poverty carry a greater cost to making choices that benefit their community and environment long term at the expense of a small personal benefit. Helping people reach stable ground in terms of finances and health will improve the welfare of people and animals and benefit the local environment. This is the very core of the One Health concept – and the work that VWB is doing in Kenya to build capacity in farmers and children in how to prevent serious zoonotic diseases.
Rabies outbreak in Kisumu, Kenya:
Rabies case in British Columbia, Canada:
Rabies case in Murang’a, Kenya: