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AITHM member and researcher have partnered with a Zambian team to implement an innovative poultry disease surveillance program that’s improving food security and income generation in the country’s farming communities.

Malnutrition is one of the biggest health challenges in low-income tropical countries like Zambia. The problem in the landlocked African nation is exacerbated by HIV and AIDS, which has led to an increased number of widowed women and orphaned children. Many initiatives have attempted to address this problem but have struggled to find a sustainable solution that doesn’t require ongoing external support.

Researchers at James Cook University, College of Public Health and Veterinary Sciences may have found a solution to the problem. They have partnered with Eastern Zambia’s Veterinary Services to implement an innovative poultry disease surveillance program that’s had a dramatic effect on local communities’ quality of life.

Why poultry? Chickens are a practical source of food for low-income families as farming poultry doesn’t require a lot of infrastructure or resources. And in Zambia chickens can also act as currency. When families need to pay school fees or buy text books for their children, they sell chickens to fund their purchases.

The initiative focuses on working with poultry farmers – many of whom are single or widowed women – and looks at how they interact socially to identify hubs where poultry disease is most likely to be transmitted.

“This has never been done in these communities before and helps to rationalise where scarce health resources can be most efficiently targeted,” says project leader Professor Bruce Gummow, who has been working with communities in Eastern Zambia since 2014.

Farmers are encouraged to establish local poultry clubs in these hubs to chat about problems with chickens in their villages and collate data on the health of their poultry, which is passed onto Veterinary Services to aid early disease detection and response.

“The poultry diseases that spread through these communities can be likened to the medieval plagues, and failure to respond rapidly has had devastating consequences for the livelihood of these communities,” says Professor Gummow.

“We created a template where farmers can record the number of chickens they’ve bought and sold, and we included some questions about diseases or syndromes they might be seeing.

“This information is sent back to Veterinary Services, which collates the reports from the farmers and tells the poultry clubs about the syndromes reported in the last month in their area. The farmers can immediately see if there are problems in their areas and react to those problems.”

To incentivise farmers to join the poultry clubs, organisers offered simple accounting lessons. “We taught them to do some profit and loss calculations with a simple spreadsheet showing how many birds they have and how many birds they're losing over a period of time,” says Professor Gummow.

“The farmers began to realise they were losing a lot more birds than they thought and that if they could improve the health of their birds they could sell some and make money out of it.” 

The initiative has resulted in such a dramatic drop in poultry mortality in the villages that local communities are now setting up markets to sell the excess chickens. This has led to increased food security and income generation.

And it doesn’t stop there. Many of the poultry clubs are expanding into co-ops and using their profits to purchase vaccines in bulk.

“Previously they couldn't buy a vaccine bottle because it was normally multi-dose and too expensive,” says Professor Gummow. “Now, as a group, they can buy a multi-dose vaccination bottle and, when they see the syndromes developing, they can vaccinate their chickens before they get sick.”

The Zambian Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock says more than 90 per cent of rural poultry farmers have found the initiative to be very useful.

“The knock-on effect is the villagers have an improved standard of living and protein source, which translates into healthier people,” says Professor Gummow.

“The work is unique because it’s community-driven and requires minimal infrastructure and resources. This is what makes it sustainable and different from other attempts to solve this problem,” says Professor Gummow.

In fact, the initiative has been so successful that the Zambian government plans to expand it into other provinces in the country, and Professor Gummow is now working on a similar project with pig and poultry farmers in South Africa.

Professor Bruce Gummow

College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences

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