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[NAIROBI] African farmers who keep livestock such as cattle could get an affordable vaccine to protect their animals against the deadly East Coast fever (ECF), if a new consortium succeeds.

The Kenya-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which is leading the new consortium, announced in a statement last month (31 January) that they have received US$11 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to initially fund a project to develop a new ECF vaccine, which could be available in ten years.

The consortium includes the Centre for Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases in Malawi and three US-based institutions — University of Maryland, Washington State University and the United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service.

“We’ve constituted a consortium made up of scientists from different fields and institutions to pool our knowledge and come up with a new vaccine.”

Vish Nene, International Livestock Research Institute

Other consortium members are the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium and three UK-based institutions, namely the Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicine, the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Veterinary College.

The statement adds that the existing vaccine has proved expensive to many farmers because it costs as much as US$12 for each animal. The new vaccine would be easier to produce than the current vaccine, which requires 18 months to produce a single batch.

“We’re building on the knowledge we have of the existing vaccine to develop a new-generation vaccine that will be more affordable to farmers and take less time to produce,” says Vish Nene, director of ILRI’s vaccine biosciences and leader of the ECF vaccine project.

He adds: “We’ve constituted a consortium made up of scientists from different fields and institutions to pool our knowledge and come up with a new vaccine”.

ECF is caused by a protozoan parasite Theileriaparva, which is transmitted by ticks. The parasite has its reservoir in Cape buffaloes, causing ECF of cattle in 12 African countries, including Burundi, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

In 2013, ECF killed about one million cattle in 11 of the affected countries, inflicting losses of US$300 million, according to the ILRI. 

The current vaccine is used alongside early drug treatment to manage ECF, which if untreated, kills cattle in three to four weeks after infection, says Nene.

Kenneth Mbai, a lecturer of veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, says East Coast fever is prevalent in East and Central Africa. He explains that selling the “first-generation” vaccine developed decades ago has become almost impossible owing to its high price, so a replacement would be highly welcome.

“Some companies in Kenya have in the past tried to commercialise the existing vaccine but have dropped the move after making losses due to poor farmer uptake,” Mbai tells SciDev.Net.

Laban Gatitu, a smallholder dairy farmer in Murang’a in central Kenya, believes that any vaccine to help farmers should retail at around US$1 for each animal and hopes for quick development of the new product.

“We vaccinate our animals almost every year against diseases and we have no problem whatsoever because the government charges about US$1.50 a dose; a vaccine for East Coast fever ought to be similarly low-priced,” Gatitu asserts.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.