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Lesotho, Better Prepared to Fight Animal Diseases

Nuclear derived techniques have so far shown that Lesotho is free of foot-and-mouth disease, one of the most infectious diseases that kill livestock. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

Diagnosing animal diseases early and rapidly is now possible in Lesotho, a country of two million in southern Africa that up until recently relied on foreign laboratories for analysis. Thanks to the support of the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), veterinary scientists in the capital Maseru are since June using nuclear and nuclear derived technologies to identify and characterize viruses that affect livestock and humans.

“To keep diseases under control and be able to respond rapidly to any possible outbreaks, we need to be able to do our own diagnoses,” said Gerard Mahloane, acting Director General of Veterinary Services at Lesotho's Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security.

The techniques are sensitive, robust and easy to use. And most importantly, they save time. The techniques allow for the identification of viruses — including Ebola and avian influenza — within a few hours and with a high degree of accuracy. “What before would take weeks to discover, we now see immediately,” Mahloane said. “This makes a great deal of a difference.”

Early diagnosis helps curtail the spread of a disease by making it possible to rapidly isolate and treat infected animals and patients earlier. This makes it easier for authorities and farmers to respond quickly to outbreaks and control them, should they occur, and to keep a good level of surveillance. Most of the viruses they study can be transmitted to humans as well.

With the help of these techniques, scientists at the Central Veterinary Laboratory have been able to demonstrate that Lesotho is free of foot-and-mouth disease, one of the most infectious diseases that kill livestock.

They are using the newly delivered equipment to verify if the country is also free of peste des petits ruminants (PPR), a highly contagious, widely spread disease that can kill thousands of sheep and goats per year, as well as avian influenza, a current outbreak in the region that has led Lesotho to ban chicken imports from neighbouring South Africa.

In the past, Lesotho’s authorities used to send more than 2000 samples to South Africa and Botswana for analysis each year to ensure that the country was free of such animal diseases — analyses that are expensive but mandatory by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). They now rely on foreign laboratories for confirmation or validation only.

To African countries facing the threat of animal disease outbreaks, the help of the IAEA and FAO in equipping their laboratories and training their scientists in the use of these techniques and the corresponding biosafety measures has been critical. Lesotho is the world’s number two producer of mohair, a material they make from the country’s many sheep and goat. Ensuring that their sheep and goat are healthy helps empower farmers, producers and exporters alike.

The nuclear and nuclear-derived techniques include fluorescent antibody test (FAT), enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), radioimmunoassay (RIA) and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

The IAEA, through its technical cooperation programme and in partnership with FAO, has been assisting Lesotho in fighting infectious diseases since it joined the IAEA in 2009.