Cattle vaccination against malignant catarrhal fever

Published: 4 February 2021

This project explores the balance of pastoral livelihoods, food security and ecosystem integrity in the Serengeti, Tanzania

Cattle grazing in an open savannah of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Malignant Catarrhal Fever (MCF) is a fatal disease of cattle, caused by alcelaphine herpesvirus-1 and transmitted from wildebeest, which are asymptomatic carriers. The disease poses a substantial burden on the livelihoods and food security of pastoralists in East Africa and is an important factor driving land-use conflict at the borders of wildlife-protected areas.

Our recent research has demonstrated the safety and efficacy of an attenuated MCF vaccine for cattle, which has many potential benefits for livelihoods and nutritional status of poor livestock-keeping families and the sustainability of mixed livestock-wildlife land-use system. However, widespread cattle vaccination could also have some adverse environmental and conservation consequences which might need to be managed or mitigated.

As a result of our earlier research, an MCF cattle vaccine is likely to become commercially available, which could lead to significant livestock productivity gains and land-use changes around wildlife-protected areas. In anticipation of this, and to generate data that will allow preparation and planning by wildlife, livestock and village authorities, this study aims to carry out an observational study in the Serengeti ecosystem of northern Tanzania to examine revealed preferences for MCF vaccine use and the consequences of vaccine use on MCF incidence, milk availability to family members, cattle movements and management, livestock-wildlife interactions, vegetation productivity and human-wildlife conflict.

The study will involve household surveys, analysis of remote-sensing data on the environment, livestock movement studies and analysis of wildebeest movement and behaviour patterns. The project team comprises an interdisciplinary partnership involving veterinary epidemiologists, MCF vaccine specialists, environmental and ecological scientists, environmental economists and social scientists from the UK, working together with government and non-governmental partners in Tanzania.

Adoption of MCF vaccine has the potential to enhance incomes and food security for many livestock-dependent families, particularly improving access of women and children to milk. This has the potential to reduce the high rates of childhood stunting seen in these communities and improve educational outcomes. After decades of demanding support for development of an MCF vaccine, pastoralists living in MCF-risk areas will be empowered to have more choices about grazing management and will no longer be at the mercy of the vagaries of wildebeest movements, which are exacerbated by increasingly erratic rainfall patterns. The project is likely to have substantial impacts in improving trust between livestock owners and veterinary services, as well as alleviating tensions with wildlife authorities.

While large-scale availability and adoption of a commercial vaccine is a longer-term outcome of the project, vaccination of cattle as part of project activities will provide immediate economic, health and wellbeing benefits to livestock-owning families in the study. For families who choose not to purchase vaccine or cannot afford to purchase vaccine, benefits will arise from investment of funds into a shared community resource that will support livestock production and livestock-based livelihoods.

A key objective is to support the capacity of communities, livestock and wildlife authorities to prepare for and manage potential consequences of widespread adoption of an MCF vaccine. Discussion of results with stakeholders will be essential to enable effective decision-making. A key activity will be the annual Serengeti Stakeholders' Meeting, held at the end of the project, to discuss the implications of MCF vaccination with senior wildlife managers, livestock authorities, community leaders and NGOs. This meeting is organized by Morrison and colleagues in the Greater Serengeti Conservation Society and provides the only regularly occurring platform where senior managers meet to develop ecosystem-wide conservation strategies.

The impacts of this translational work extend to other MCF-risk regions of Africa where cattle and wildebeest co-occur, including Kenya, Mozambique, Zambia, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, with project findings disseminated through regional stakeholders, such as FAO, GALVmed, International Livestock Research Institute and the International Veterinary Vaccinology Network.

First published: 4 February 2021