Zoonotic outbreaks and the systems that prevent them

March 26, 2024 by PATH

How PATH and Uganda’s government are working together to strengthen veterinary laboratories—and protect farmers and their animals.

Dr. Laura Lydia Adong (khaki overalls), a veterinary officer in Uganda, vaccinates farm animals against anthrax. PATH helps governments apply a One Health approach to guard against climate-driven zoonotic disease outbreaks. Photo: PATH/BBC StoryWorks.

Dr. Laura Lydia Adong (khaki overalls), a veterinary officer in Uganda, vaccinates farm animals against anthrax. PATH helps governments apply a One Health approach to guard against climate-driven zoonotic disease outbreaks. Photo: PATH/BBCStoryWorks.

In Uganda, veterinarians, government officials, and PATH staff are all working together to protect people and animals from deadly diseases. As part of the USAID-funded Infectious Disease Detection and Surveillance (IDDS) project, PATH is helping Uganda strengthen its health security systems—including critical veterinary laboratories tasked with detecting seven priority zoonotic diseases.

Zoonotic disease outbreaks

Insufficient environmental protections further the spread of fatal infectious diseases. Livestock farmers in the Mbale District of Uganda have seen this firsthand. The severe bacterial infection anthrax has killed—and continues to kill—farm animals in the region.

Anthrax disease spores can live in the soil for decades, resulting in further contagion when runoff occurs after heavy rains. In the mountainous regions of east Uganda, flooding degrades the soil where animals graze. This pushes farmers into the valleys in search of grazing land—putting them and their animals at risk of infection. This is not an isolated case.

Deadly infectious diseases such as anthrax and Ebola have become endemic. Nearly 75 percent of infectious diseases in humans originate from animals, and animal-to-human transmission is increasing because of the climate crisis. With people encroaching further on animal habitats and weather patterns becoming increasingly extreme, more outbreaks are expected.

There is an urgent need to protect communities against the spread of disease to people and the farm animals they rely on.

A holistic approach to disease control

As part of the IDDS project team, PATH staff are working alongside the Ugandan government to support veterinarians and other medical professionals in protecting lives and livelihoods by following the One Health model of infectious disease control. This approach, approved by the World Health Organization, recognizes the interdependence between the health of humans, animals, and the wider environment. In this context, the newly formed team of professionals can develop a timely and effective response to urgent health challenges.

PATH is helping strengthen the technical infrastructure and staff to better detect and respond to disease outbreaks. The project has funded two veterinary laboratories: Mbale District Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Mbale City and Uganda Wildlife Authority Diagnostic and Research Laboratory in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Mweya Peninsula. The sites are strategically located in hot spots where diseases like anthrax, Rift Valley fever, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, Ebola, and Marburg virus disease are prevalent.

By working together with local ministries and health sectors, the IDDS project team developed national testing standards for curbing high-priority diseases that affect people and animals. Approaches include:

  • Free vaccinations for farm animals.
  • Disease surveillance.
  • Rapid detection.
  • Routine animal monitoring.

By strengthening surveillance, testing, and reporting, PATH makes it possible to identify outbreaks more swiftly so that clinicians and community members can intervene earlier. These actions will protect lives and help reduce financial hardships for those who rely on family farming.

The efforts are starting to pay off. After a week-long laboratory evaluation, assessors from the South African National Accreditation System granted the veterinary laboratories international accreditation based on ISO/IEC 17025:2017 standards. This is the first time that veterinary laboratories in the region have received this validation.

In their work with local farmers, PATH project leaders also recognized a need for education about antibiotic use. Some farmers had been using antibiotics to help keep their animals from getting sick, but this practice results in resistance to the medication when it’s needed most. The team began visiting local villages to sensitize farmers about recognizing disease symptoms, seeking veterinary support, and properly using antibiotics.

It is hoped that these interventions will help to safeguard people and animals across the region.

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