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Pathogens vs Prosperity

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Why social scientists at The Bartlett are working with epidemiologists, immunologists and geneticists to tackle the spread of bovine TB in Ethiopia’s burgeoning dairy industry.

Pathogens vs Prosperity

A cattle farm in Ethiopia.

Credit: Unicef

85% of people in Ethiopia rely on agriculture for at least part of their livelihood.


Ethiopia has the largest livestock population in sub-Saharan Africa: almost 57 million cattle share the country with its 85 million human inhabitants. But the type of cow traditionally farmed there – the zebu – is not great at producing milk.

The government sees the country’s cattle farming tradition as having huge potential for developing a dairy industry that not only meets national demand (currently milk powder has to be imported from Switzerland), but could also allow exports to China, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. So since the 1990s, it has been encouraging intensive dairy farming and the current five-year plan from aims to grow the contribution of dairy industry to the national economy by 793% by 2020.

Building up that industry depends on introducing ‘exotic’ breeds, such as Holstein-Friesians, which are better milk producers. But there’s a huge risk in doing this: those breeds appear to be more susceptible to bovine TB than the native zebu. And bTB is a zoonotic disease – like Ebola, avian flu and SARS – which means it can jump the species divide between animals and humans and spread rapidly, especially in areas of widespread poverty where food safety regulations and health systems are weak.

The social science of disease control

Since 2014, social scientists at The Bartlett’s Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) have been working with eight collaborating institutions on the Ethiopia Control of Bovine Tuberculosis Strategies (ETHICOBOTS) project. This interdisciplinary project brings together epidemiologists, immunologists, geneticists and social scientists from Europe and Ethiopia to develop systems to ‘clean’ the country’s cattle stock of bTB. The aim is to minimise the potential impact of the disease on poor high-risk groups, as the emergent dairy livestock system continues to expand.

Most of Ethiopia’s cattle, particularly exotic and cross-breeds, are farmed in small herds of under 10 animals by families who work in close contact with their animals, and for whom a cow is by far the most valuable possession. If a cow becomes sick, the farmers readily admit, they would receive no compensation from government and could not afford to slaughter it. Instead, they would not report the problem and sell the cow somewhere far away.

75% estimate of infectious diseases in humans that are spread from animals.

Source: WHO

So while developing a major dairy industry could boost Ethiopia’s national economy, with little past experience of controlling bTB, and no system in place for monitoring it or insuring farmers against it, intensive dairy farming involving susceptible breeds poses a significant risk: it could rapidly spread bTB across the country. It could destroy many poor families’ livelihoods as well as affecting public health, food production and the wider economy. In a landlocked country in the Horn of Africa, there is also the potential for the disease to spread to some of the region’s most troubled nations – Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan.

Developing sustainable strategies

Over the first five years (concluding in August 2019, the ETHICOBOTS project has gathered data on the prevalence of bTB in Ethiopia. It’s found that in some exotic cattle in intensive dairy farms in central Ethiopia, the prevalence of bTB is more than 30%, while in zebu it is between 0 and 19%.

The project has been working towards developing sustainable strategies for controlling the disease. It has examined the management of sickness and health both in smallholder households, and on emerging commercial dairy farms. It has also studied 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.

$20bn amount zoonotic diseases are estimated to have cost in direct costs globally between 2000–2010.


New funding for a further two years will allow this work to continue and IGP’s part in that is to continue its work with affected communities – making sure that strategies suggested by the natural scientists in the project to prevent and control the disease in both cows and humans, make practical sense to the people who make their living from dairy farming. Achieving that involves exploring participatory methods for disease surveillance using mobile phones and developing simple farmer-led monitoring systems for intervention programmes.

“We are working with and listening to the farmers – that way they are more likely to report problems and become reliable sources of surveillance data,” says Catherine Hodge, a PhD Candidate at IGP who is investigating systems and technologies that could be used to help farmers understand risks and share information.

At the same time, IGP is working with government officials to create policy notes that will inform the development of new guidelines and a set of evidence-based, appropriate interventions to minimise the burden of bTB.

The potential for that work to progress – both on practical and political levels – grew dramatically last April, when new prime minister Abiy Ahmed came to power, bringing an end to a six month state of emergency in Ethiopia and introducing significant reforms, among them re-opening the border with the country’s neighbour, Eritrea.

“Lots of things are changing,” says Hodge. “The political changes mean the government is more willing to listen to constructive criticism and generally people are happier to say what they really think.”

The Institute for Global Prosperity challenges the prevailing understanding of prosperity. It values voice, and believes experience informs decision-making and empowers communities. Using research and social, economic and technical innovation it reframes questions and develops new approaches to improve lives. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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