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[KAMPALA]  A new tool for diagnosing livestock disease could help control and prevent the spread of disease among cattle in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to a study.

The tool, which consists of a scoring card to record cattle symptoms, aims to simplify disease assessments and boost the numbers of correct diagnoses, particularly as misdiagnosis and incorrect treatment can lead to drug resistance among animals.

The low-cost intervention card was tested by fifteen veterinarians in five districts of eastern Uganda, according to a study published in PLoS ONE last month (12 July).

Researchers found that veterinarians using the card recorded higher numbers of clinical symptoms of disease than when veterinarians did not use the score card, thus reducing the risk of making mistaken diagnoses.

Joseph Webeleta Magona, research director of the Uganda-based Bulindi Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute, and one of the study's lead authors, said that the score card system is "designed to help local animal-keeping communities and animal health workers diagnose and treat animal diseases".

Symptoms are entered onto the card and the resultant scores outline to the user what disease an animal may have. The tool helps rule out certain diseases, and homes in on the disease that most closely matches the reported symptoms.

Magona told SciDev.Net that the most common cattle diseases in the tropics are trypanosomosis, theileriosis, anaplasmosis, cowdriosis, fasciolosis and parasitic gastroenteritis, which together account for around 50 per cent of disease-related cattle fatalities.

According to Magona, the tool could be helpful in areas without easy access to laboratory services to confirm tests for suspected diseases.

"Veterinary services in Africa are generally [not functional] and in many areas there are no labs, and so the samples collected from animals cannot be confirmed," Magona said.

Up to 80 per cent of the population in Uganda get their livelihoods from subsistence agriculture and livestock production, and farmers produce majority of milk and beef consumed in the country, accounting for a big part of its gross domestic product.

"While eastern Uganda practises mixed farming, more than 90 per cent of the households keep livestock, and since veterinary services are now privatised, households can hardly afford veterinary costs for treatment of animals," Magona said.

Patrick Eyodu, a Ugandan district veterinary officer, said the innovation could be "crucial in areas with mixed types of diseases, because of its scoring system, [which] can be used even by people with low levels of training".

And Ugandan cattle farmer Paul Rwakinengere said, "this wonder-sounding tool may mark the start of [an] era of reduced disease-related animal mortalities".

But despite the tool's apparent benefits and accessibility, it may be a long time until it is embraced by national veterinary services in Africa, according to Magona. "Governments do not prioritise disease outbreaks and take a long time to intervene when they occur," he said.

Promoting its uptake among communities involved in livestock management will also be challenge, Magona explained.

 "We lack funds or even an organisation to help disseminate information about [the tool] on a large scale so that stakeholders can embrace it," he said. Currently, only the study's participants are using the tool to diagnose disease.

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PLoS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040687 (2012)