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Nuclear Technologies Keep Foot and Mouth Disease Under Control in Morocco


(Photo: F. El Mellouli/LRARC)

A year ago, Moroccan veterinary authorities identified a new strain of the Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) virus, a highly contagious animal disease, by using nuclear derived technologies. The use of this technology led to successful vaccination campaigns in the country, and Morocco is now celebrating a year without any case of FMD. This was achieved with the support of the IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
FMD affects cattle and ruminants, both domesticated and wild. It is highly contagious and often fatal to the animal, and it can severely impact food security and the economy. Morocco has 29 million cattle, sheep, goats and camels, and its livestock sector contributes nearly 13% of agricultural GDP.

In January 2019, Morocco experienced FMD outbreaks in several provinces. Herds were rapidly infected in five localities. For each case confirmed, all livestock within a three-kilometre radius was slaughtered, and a surveillance zone with a radius of ten kilometres was established, blocking the sales of animals and animal food products.

To rapidly control the spread of the disease, the Regional Laboratory for Analysis and Research of Casablanca (LRARC) used nuclear-derived techniques, which can provide quick and accurate analysis (see Genetic sequencing). Traditional techniques take longer to identify the disease, resulting in an increased number of animals infected and in higher outbreak-related costs.

“The real challenge for national veterinary authorities was to know whether the outbreaks were caused by the same strain of the FMD virus as the one detected in 2015 during the previous outbreak,” said Ivancho Naletoski, Animal Health Officer at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.

In 2017, IAEA/FAO experts, with support from the IAEA technical cooperation programme, trained 10 veterinary laboratory staff from Morocco and provided them with equipment and supplies to facilitate disease identification and guide control and response measures. The trainees included staff from LRARC, who subsequently successfully identified the new FMD strain in early 2019 by using their newly acquired skills and the genetic sequencing service established by the Joint FAO/IAEA Division.

Shortly after the FMD outbreak, the specific virus genome was sequenced by the Moroccan veterinary laboratory and compared with the locally circulating strains. LRARC simultaneously sent samples for genetic sequence analysis to the Animal Health Laboratory (ANSES) in Maisons-Alfort, France, a reference institution for FMD identification, which confirmed LRARC’s diagnosis.

“Identifying the strain of a virus is the first step for national veterinary authorities in case of an outbreak. The second one is to select or develop a proper vaccine, as each strain needs a specific one,” said Naletoski.

Once the new strain and vaccine were identified, the Moroccan veterinary authorities implemented successful vaccination campaigns, which led to halting rapidly the spread of the disease. Compulsory mass vaccination campaigns for susceptible ruminants (cattle, goats and sheep) were carried out in the whole country, at no cost to farmers. These campaigns helped strengthening the animals’ immunity and have prevented the spread of the virus.

“The genome sequencing transferred by the IAEA to our lab enabled us to rapidly discriminate the circulating strains in the country and adjust the disease control plans accordingly,” said Fatiha El Mellouli, Head of Animal and Plant Health Service at LRARC.

One year later, the benefits are tangible for farmers, producers and exporters of animal and animal products in Morocco. The country has ultimately maintained its national FMD control programme endorsed by the World Organization for Animal health (OIE) since 2012 and continues its efforts to improve animal health and related trade.  

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