If there's anything we've learned from last year's Ebola outbreak (and to a lesser extent, the 2011 movie Contagion), it's that every virus and disease is just one plane ride away from shutting down our favourite DJ night at the local bowling alley as well as robbing our world of GOOP.
It's part of the reason why researchers at the University of Alberta are working on one wallop of vaccine that will protect African livestock from five devastating diseases: lumpy-skin disease, goat pox, sheep pox, peste des petits ruminants, and Rift Valley fever.
Virologist and U of A's vice president research Lorne Babiuk's team got a $2.8 million grant last month from the Canadian government to further test the vaccines in Kenya and South Africa, where the diseases can kill up to a quarter of cattle, goats, and sheep.
"You improve food security but you also improve the viability of the smallholders and protect them from infections that could kill them as well."
"There are a number of diseases in Africa and China that we don't have here in North America, but if they come here that would be devastating for our economy, humans, and animals," says Babiuk. The diseases can be carried by insects (hey, West Nile!) as well as simply hitching a ride with anyone who visits a farm, which is why border patrol is hell-bent on knowing if you've been up close and personal with livestock when you were on vacation.
"If one goat dies in North America it's not a problem; but for many of these small ruminants—sheep and goats—are the lifeblood of food for the families in the developing world. The family might have three goats, and if one dies, the children might not have milk. If we could develop vaccines that could reduce the mortality of these animals, then we can improve the mortality and economic well-being of these small holder farms."
While smallpox in humans has been eradicated, it still affects goats and sheep (in cows, it's called lumpy skin disease). Peste des petits ruminants is like the highly contagious animal version of influenza and measles, explains Babiuk, and has since spread from Africa and the Middle East into Morocco. Rift Valley Fever, meanwhile, can be transferred to humans via mosquitos. "You improve food security but you also improve the viability of the smallholders and protect them from infections that could kill them as well," says Babiuk, adding that lab tests on sheep and goats have already been successful.
After finishing the trials, the next step is to work with commercial companies in Africa to produce a vaccine that will pass regulatory standards. After that comes a whole new set of challenges: working with social scientists to introduce vaccines to farmers who aren't familiar with them, or Western medicine in general. "You can have the best vaccine in the world, but if it's not accepted by society and delivered in a manner that's culturally acceptable then you don't have anything."