Mongolia Keeps Animal Diseases at Bay with the Help of Nuclear Technologies

A portrait of life in Mongolia is not complete without livestock. For city dwellers and nomads alike, more than 70 million animals are an essential source of food, income and cultural symbols for this country of barely three million inhabitants. Yet livestock owners like Batbaatar Chuluun are calm about highly contagious animal diseases. That’s thanks to Mongolia’s comprehensive animal disease control system built in part with support from the IAEA, in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).  

“I don’t worry about my animals or the diseases. If my animals get sick, the local vet will come and help me and will know what to do. I know the government is ready and can help,” said Chuluun, a nomadic farmer from just outside the capital city Ulan Bator, who owns a few hundred cattle, goats and sheep. He relies on the meat and milk of these animals for his income and for feeding his family.

For decades, scientists and veterinarians in Mongolia have been trained and equipped by the IAEA and the FAO. Through this support, veterinarians have learned how to correctly take samples and manage potentially infected livestock, and scientists have acquired the skills and tools to use nuclear and nuclear-derived techniques to quickly and accurately analyse these samples (see The Science box).

Animal diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), peste des petits ruminants (PPR) and brucellosis, can easily spread to livestock through direct contact with wild animals, as well as through the air or contact with foodstuffs and objects contaminated by an infected animal. Their effects can range from lameness to death. These diseases are at times linked to infected meat and animal products, which causes many countries to impose trade restrictions to minimize the risk of potentially importing a disease. 

“When an animal disease strikes, we’re well-trained and ready to respond fast,” said Batsukh Zayat, Lead Veterinary Scientist at Mongolia’s Institute of Veterinary Medicine. “We know how to work together at all levels to quickly enact emergency response plans, effectively analyse samples and distribute vaccines to minimize the spread of a disease.”

Animals on the move

Fast and accurate diagnosis is critical in Mongolia where nearly all of the livestock roam free and graze off the land, explained Bandi Tsolomon, Head of the Veterinary Division and Chief Epidemiologist at the Implementing Agency of the Government of Mongolia for Veterinary and Animal Breeding.

Risk of contamination is further exacerbated by the nomadic lifestyle of around half of the Mongolian population who care for the majority of the country’s livestock. Nomadic people move on average four to five times per year to ensure their animals have sufficient land for grazing.

Put to the test

Mongolia’s animal disease control system was put to the test during a major FMD outbreak in September 2010. The country was struck by a severe case of this infectious disease that affects cloven-hoofed animals — those with hooves split into two toes — such as cattle, sheep, goats and antelopes.

“At the time of the outbreak, we had to cull more than 25 000 animals, while many more fell sick,” explained Zayat. Through the decades of close collaboration with the IAEA and the FAO, Mongolian scientists and veterinarians had the training and equipment they needed to quickly respond to the epidemic.

Once farmers and local veterinarians spotted the sick animals, they quickly quarantined them and took samples. These samples were first analysed at provincial labs and then sent for further analysis to the veterinary scientists at Mongolia’s State Central Veterinary Laboratory (SCVL). They used nuclear and nuclear-derived techniques to detect and evaluate the virus strains and to determine which vaccines to use.

Viruses evolve over time, which means a vaccine that may have worked for one virus strain, may not provide sufficient protection for another virus strain, even if they are similar,” explained Gerrit Viljoen, Head of the Animal Production and Health Section at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. A strain-specific vaccine becomes necessary when a standard vaccine is no longer providing full protection.

Mongolian officials and scientists worked directly with the Joint FAO/IAEA Division to trace and procure the most suitable vaccine from a supplier in France. Within three months of getting the vaccine, the outbreak was contained.

Mongolia’s control system continues to perform. Most recently, PPR crossed borders into Mongolia for the first time, affecting at least four provinces. Scientists at SCVL were able to quickly identify the pathogen, and Joint FAO/IAEA Division scientists quickly confirmed the findings.

These findings immediately triggered prepared intervention plans that involved monitoring herds and separating infected animals from non-infected animals. The early and rapid diagnosis of PPR allowed Mongolia to effectively gain control of the disease before it could spread.

Regaining lost export ground

As animal diseases continue to be controlled on a local level, officials are now also using the animal disease control system as a springboard for re-establishing the country’s position in export markets as a source of high quality meat.

Historically, Mongolia exported approximately 150 000 tonnes of animal products per year. Due to animal diseases, its export market shrank as countries have grown concerned about the spread of diseases potentially affecting the quality of the products.

Mongolia’s export potential remains at just under 150 000 tonnes per year, but the country only exports on average less than 10 000 tonnes annually. This equates to around $600 million in lost revenue compared to before.

But the situation is now changing as Mongolian officials use the animal disease control system to build confidence in the country’s products. This includes establishing and maintaining zones free of FMD. “We now have an area with three zones: one that is free of FMD, another that is a buffer zone, and the third is a vaccination zone. By having this system, we have been able to open up exports from the FMD-free zone to neighbouring countries. We hope to continue this trend and continue to grow our export market again,” Tsolomon said.

Scientists are also actively working to prove other diseases have never been present in the country and that their country meets World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) standards. These standards play an important part in international trade.

“Now with the tools and equipment we have, we are making steady progress to gain back lost markets,” Zayat said.