SEARCA webinar discusses biosecurity measures for handling livestock diseases and zoonoses

  • By Jean Rebecca D. Labios
  • 24 February 2021

LOS BAÑOS, Laguna, Philippines – The Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) conducted its 23rd SEARCA Online Learning and Virtual Engagement (SOLVE) webinar titled Livestock Diseases and Zoonoses: How Secure are Biosecurity Measures? on 17 February 2021 via Zoom and Facebook Live.

 Dr. Tamsin Barnes (1st row, leftmost) and Dr. Anthony Bucad (1st row, rightmost) with the SOLVE Platform Team Dr. Tamsin Barnes (1st row, leftmost) and Dr. Anthony Bucad (1st row, rightmost) with the SOLVE Platform Team

The webinar aimed to enhance public knowledge and awareness on surveillance systems, biosecurity measures, and zoonoses and emerging diseases. The presenters were Dr. Anthony Bucad, Veterinarian II and Officer-in-Charge of the Animal Disease Control Section, Bureau of Animal Industry, Philippine Department of Agriculture (DA-BAI); Dr. Tamsin Barnes, Senior Research Fellow in Veterinary Epidemiology, University of Queensland, Australia; and Dr. Richard Kock, Professor, Veterinary Ecologist, and Infectious Disease Researcher, Royal Veterinary College, University of London.

Dr. Bucad started with a discussion on the Philippine government’s initiatives on animal disease prevention and control. He highlighted the average meat consumption of every Filipino, which is 28.8kg per year (OECD 2017). This, he said, makes the livestock industry an important sector that the Philippine Department of Agriculture (DA) is focusing on. Through DA-BAI, the Philippine government launched several initiatives that puts the livestock industry at the forefront of priorities that needs to be monitored. These include implementing legislations and policies, and having relevant legal bases established for the livestock sector. An animal disease reporting mechanism is formed to help the surveillance system in the country for early detection of diseases and  monitoring disease outbreaks. Border control policies are also in place such as the Pre-Border Measures for the Export of Meat and Meat Products to the Philippines (DA Admin. Order #16 s2006) and Importation Procedures for Live Animals (DA Memorandum Circular #12 s2017). When it comes to biosecurity, DA-BAI is presently drafting the National Biosecurity Guideline of the Philippines.  Awareness campaigns such as the “Sampung Utos ng Biosecurity” are also implemented to raise knowledge and understanding of basic principles on biosecurity to prevent disease events, be it in commercial or backyard setting. Other campaigns, including emergency preparedness plans, are also conducted for rabies, avian influenza, African Swine Fever (ASF), foot and mouth disease, etc. Capacity building activities are also conducted for local counterparts to help DA-BAI with its mandate of animal disease prevention and control.

Narrowing the discussion from a macro perspective to a micro one, Dr. Barnes’ presentation was about the results of a research project on combatting ASF in Timor-Leste, which she helped conduct. Reports of dead pigs  in September 2019 in Timor-Leste were confirmed to be caused by ASF. With this problem, the research project asked the question: can we keep pigs free from ASF and alive? The research problem led them to the need to introduce the concept of biosecurity, which was at the time, an abstract concept to most Timorese. A one-day biosecurity training session was implemented, involving farmers and technicians affected by the outbreak. It included group discussions and activities explaining the principles of biosecurity, with the concepts tailored to the different contexts of Timorese farmers and technicians. Practical biosecurity measures were also executed to adapt over the ASF condition: metal fences were built around the pens to keep the pigs contained and away from other animals. Only farmers and technicians can enter, provided they follow the protocol of cleansing their hands and changing footwear to boots when going inside pens. After conducting trials, it was shown that biosecurity works, and farmers can keep their pigs relatively disease-free. However, another problem surfaced, and this was social jealousy,  an actual concern for development projects in Timor-Leste. This led  the research project team to realize that perhaps it was lack of awareness that underpin social jealousy, making the risk of ASF re-emerging and spreading to remain high. To address this, several public awareness sessions were conducted. Dr. Barnes closed her presentation by stating that part of what makes biosecurity measures effective would be the human behavior component: “Enhanced awareness and understanding among the community is essential and a group level approach is beneficial. The scientific principles of biosecurity are very important, but so too is the human behavior component. We need scientists, social scientists, and all community members to work together to enable greater potential for biosecurity measures to be adopted, and to continue to be used in the longer term to improve animal health and human livelihoods. 

For his presentation, Dr. Kock outlined the animal-human interface and transmission mechanisms between animals and humans to provide an understanding of further emerging infectious diseases and zoonoses. He defined zoonoses as the naturally transmissible infection from animals to humans. When this happens, there is usually an animal reservoir that leads to infection. Samples of human pathogens that evolved from wildlife source organisms are influenza A, HIV, SARS CoV, rabies, and dengue. With these examples, he noted that emerging zoonoses are mostly associated with tropical and sub-tropical climates which could also mean that the main burden of zoonoses is in developing countries. The factors that lead to disease emergence include mutation or genetic recombination of organisms; loss of resilience in ecosystems or biodiversity loss; human domestic landscapes that affect population of domestic animals and humans; and human behavior like globalization. Dr. Kock also mentioned that disease emergence can be classified as a cost of development. It has social, economic, and trade impacts which are costly, as what can be seen with the COVID-19 pandemic. Other consequences of emerging diseases include human infection debility and death; and when it becomes endemic in wildlife populations, it becomes difficult to eradicate. Classic emerging diseases are all about a multitude of drivers: increasing demand for animal protein associated with the growth and intensification of animal agriculture, live animal transport, live animal markets, meat consumption, habitat destruction, and ability to infect multiple hosts. He noted that conditions created in domestic animal production systems and human landscapes provide opportunities for pathogen jumping and evolution, amplification and spread, directly or through livestock, to humans. Dr. Kock ended his presentation by sharing that the solution to emerging diseases and zoonoses is with humans. There is no need to worry about nature if biodiversity can be restored, which will then reduce the occurrence and frequency of emerging diseases.

During the open forum, the speakers addressed questions and comments from participants about the surveillance of ASF, and the apps and systems used in animal disease prevention and control. Questions about the effects of COVID-19 on animals were also raised, to which the speakers responded to by stating that not enough studies have been done yet on the matter, but that exploratory meetings have already been conducted as part of the One Health approach of governments and organizations.

At the end of the webinar, Dr. Bucad called on to the public for their cooperation in animal disease control and prevention, especially for partners in the Philippines. He advised the audience to coordinate with local government authorities in the event of animal diseases occurring in the country.