20 Sep
  • By CTPH
  • Cause in

Community solutions to detecting and preventing disease outbreaks in Uganda

Two years after the devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa, countries are still recovering from the health and economic impacts. The countries have barely caught their breath, but already the world has turned its attention to the next outbreak wreaking havoc in the Americas—the Zika virus.

What do both of these outbreaks have in common? They belong to a group of diseases called “zoonotic” diseases that easily spread from animal to human hosts and vice versa. The diseases are common—scientists estimate that 6 out of every 10 infectious diseases in humans are spread from animals. Ebola likely infected people in West Africa through bats and Zika is spread through mosquitoes. Many in the public health field predict that the next outbreak will likely be zoonotic in origin. Diseases know no borders and when the likely culprit of the next outbreak will be a mosquito it can be expected to spread quickly and easily from neighboring countries and across oceans.

Despite being in the midst of the current outbreak in which the world still does not fully understand the extent of complications from the virus, public health professionals are already speculating the “next Zika.” In a recent article published by the Scientific American, the author hypothesizes Rift Valley Fever (RVF) is one among four poised to be the next outbreak.

Enter Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) with a core program of long-term wildlife health monitoring. Through surveys at the wildlife, livestock and human interface, CTPH is taking a One Health approach to establish early warning systems for disease outbreaks.

RVF for most people means a fever and chills. Yet in some cases it can lead to hemorrhagic fever with half the cases being fatal. There is no treatment for RVF despite its discovery in Kenya in 1931. What is alarming is that, according to Scientific American, “more people have ended up with the hemorrhagic disease (10 percent versus 1 percent from early observations).”

RVF is most commonly found in domesticated animals (cattle, sheep, buffalo and goats) and some wild animals infected through mosquitoes. In Western Uganda the pastoral people living around Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) are the most at risk. The disease can be transmitted through contact with animal tissue, either through the butchering or assisting the livestock during birth.

CTPH conducted a survey of cape buffalos in and around QENP and cattle in Kasese and Rubirizi Districts to establish the presence of brucellosis and RVF. It was found in 2011 that 22% of the cape buffalos tested were positive for RVF while 5% of the cattle tested were positive for RVF. This was the first report of RVF being present in the buffalo in QENP.

CTPH has trained Community Animal Health Workers (CAHWs) to collect blood samples from cattle to be tested for diseases. These same volunteers will inform the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) if there is a dead wild animal so blood samples can be taken from the animal and tested for any potential outbreak-causing disease.

Earlier this year, there were RVF outbreaks in humans in Kabale District in South Western Uganda. We are looking for further support to conduct a follow up of RVF monitoring around Queen Elizabeth where this time we will include humans together with wildlife and livestock. CTPH is at the forefront of the One Health approach by working closely with community members and UWA to monitor and detect zoonotic diseases. Through our continued surveillance we are on the lookout for rises in Rift Valley Fever to respond to instances before it becomes the next Zika.

The animal disease surveys and community animal health worker training was made possible with generous funding from the John D and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.