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[NAIROBI] Greater use of  new technologies, ranging from genomics to mobile phones, could radically improve the understanding and control of animal-borne diseases that cause 2.2 million deaths in humans every year, mostly in developing countries, according to a new report.

These include basic technologies such as rapid diagnostic kits that could be given to veterinary technicians and para-vets (veterinarian assistants) to enable them to diagnose diseases quickly and report diagnoses via text message to a central data-base.

Remote sensing, using satellite technology, could also be used to monitor changes in land use in order to predict the emergence of disease.

Poor communities with large livestock populations in developing countries, particularly those in Ethiopia, India, Nigeria and Tanzania, bear the biggest burden of zoonotic diseases that are transmitted from livestock to humans.

These diseases cause 2.4 billion disease cases each year, according to a global study published last month (2 July) that has mapped zoonoses hotspots.

The report was produced for the UK's Department for International Development by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in Kenya, the Institute of Zoology (IOZ) in the United Kingdom, and Hanoi Institute of Public Health (HSPH) in Hanoi.

It says that the treatment and control of zoonotic diseases — such as Rift Valley fever, tapeworms, anthrax, brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis — is hampered by under-reporting, especially in Africa, leading to such diseases becoming endemic on the continent.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 99.9 per cent of livestock losses do not appear in official disease reports.

"The current reporting system is theoretically good in most countries, but in reality, communication from village commune to a higher level is not working", said Hung Nguyen, an HSPH public health and ecosystem researcher, and one of the report's authors.

Better diagnostics, the scaling up of reporting, the increased availability and affordability of vaccines, and measuring the current zoonoses problem and setting targets to reduce it, were all critical to diminishing the problem, said Delia Grace, a veterinary epidemiologist at the ILRI, and the study’s lead researcher.  

"Human-animal diseases in poor countries continue to have three main impacts: they make billions of people sick; they kill millions; and they reduce animal productivity and lead to loss of export markets," she said. "Rift Valley fever, for example, costs Africa millions of dollars in exports each year".  

"Better, rapid diagnostics, so that people can quickly identify what an animal or person is suffering from and provide the correct treatment, are important. Enhancing food safety systems, as many of these diseases are transmitted through food, is also critical," Grace added.

Better animal husbandry and the training of para-vets could also reduce the burden of on the poor, according to Caleb Wangia, a researcher from the University of Nairobi's veterinary department.

"The problem is that farmers sometimes graze animals in areas inhabited by wildlife, with livestock picking up diseases such as brucellosis and anthrax. People often open up carcasses without knowing the cause of an animal’s death, and then catch the disease themselves," said Wanga.

Raising awareness of the dangers of these activities, in addition to implementing new technologies, is also vital to safeguarding people against animal disease.

"Most disease is in poor countries, but most diseases detection is in rich countries," Grace told SciDev.Net. "We need to invest in detecting and managing diseases at source."