The Bartlett


Essay 02: Jumping the species barrier

Why zoonoses – diseases that jump across the species divide from animals to humans – present a challenge for global prosperity.

As we saw with the recent Ebola outbreak, the impacts tend to be felt most acutely by those in the poorest parts of the world

Scientists estimate that over 60% of infectious diseases in humans are spread from animals. Many are relatively easy to prevent or treat, while others – such as Ebola, avian flu or SARS – have become notorious through recent disease outbreaks, which have led to fears of global pandemic. Many of these diseases are not new, but changes to food production systems, global trade networks, urbanisation, livelihoods and forms of human and animal interaction are affecting their intensity, frequency and potential global reach.

Zoonotic infection does not discriminate by class or wealth, but, as we saw with the recent Ebola outbreak, the impacts tend to be felt most acutely by those in the poorest parts of the world. These are communities where health facilities are already overextended, livelihood security is already tenuous, and household coping mechanisms are already struggling.

Though these communities are often more knowledgeable and experienced in managing disease than external aid agencies assume, nevertheless controlling outbreaks takes substantial resources: human, financial, technical and political. As such, zoonotic disease represents one of the major challenges to achieving sustainable, equitable, global prosperity. Their management and prevention takes place across multiple scales and geographies. They are, therefore, a macro-challenge in an increasingly globalised world, as well as catastrophic on a small scale for families and communities. They affect not only health but almost every other aspect of life, from food preparation to global governance.

At the Institute for Global Prosperity, we are facing up to this challenge through a set of research projects and initiatives that aim to build a networked understanding of the relationship between something as tiny as a pathogen and the future direction of family and community life, as well as national and international policy.

We are one of eight collaborating institutions on Ethiopia Control of Bovine Tuberculosis Strategies (ETHICOBOTS). This five-year, interdisciplinary project brings together epidemiologists, immunologists, geneticists and social scientists from Europe and Ethiopia to address the burden of bovine TB (bTB) in the country’s rapidly growing dairy sector. A zoonotic infection, bTB is a major concern for a country that not only has the largest herd of cattle in Africa, but is investing in more intensive farming systems that rely on imported cattle breeds that, though more productive, are also more bTB-susceptible.

The social science component of ETHICOBOTS investigates the impact of bTB across different sectors and scales. For farmers, farmworkers and their households, increased exposure to bTB has serious ramifications. There are also downstream consequences for public health, livelihood security, export markets and national development. This all has concomitant implications for policies in these areas.

By adopting a ‘One Health’ approach, we are examining the management of sickness and health in smallholder households and on emerging commercial dairy farms. We situate this within a broader examination of new consumption patterns, more intensive animal husbandry techniques, formal and informal trade networks of cattle and dairy products, an increasing labour burden, and attitudes to risk and decision-making.

If control strategies are to make a significant impact, rather than issuing top-down directives, we need to ensure that techniques are co-designed with the communities who are affected by bTB. To achieve this, we have put citizen-science methods at the heart of the project.

We are exploring participatory methods for disease surveillance and aim to develop simple farmer-led monitoring systems for intervention programmes. We are also working collaboratively with government officials to develop a set of policy briefings for relevant ministries. These will inform the development of new guidelines and a set of evidence-based, appropriate interventions to minimise the burden of bTB and its consequences for prosperity and wellbeing.

Dr Constance Smith is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Institute of Global Prosperity. She holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from UCL. She works on environmental and agricultural change in northern Kenya and on farming and human and animal health in Ethiopia.