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IAEA Supports Belize to Strengthen their Animal Health Diagnoses and Control Capacities

News Article
17 July 2015

Project staff working with IAEA provided PCR equipment in the Animal Health Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory in Belize City

Agriculture in Belize plays a significant role in the country’s economic stability and growth in terms of foreign exchange earnings, income generation, employment, nutrition, and food security.

The Agricultural sector represented 13% of Belize’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2014, a 2.0% increase over the previous year. Aquaculture, a well-defined arm of the agricultural sector, has seen significant growth over the years. From its modest beginning in the early 1980’s with the development of 10 acres of experimental ponds by a private company, the industry has developed rapidly with almost 8,000 production acres and export earnings recorded at $132 million Belize dollars (nearly 66.5 million euro) in 2014.

Aquaculture has been prioritized by the Government of Belize as a tool to evaluate alternative sources of protein, and ultimately provide a cheaper protein source option for Belizeans. This led to the establishment of a Government run fish hatchery to provide seed stock to small scale farmers to improve their market share alongside that of shrimp farming. The 14 shrimp farms currently operational have seen tremendous growth and export earnings over the last couple of years and have benefited from better international market access, and better management practices. However, all have faced the challenges of viral and bacterial diseases threatening their livelihoods. The impact of diseases, especially the current impact of bacterial pathogens affecting the region, has yet to determine what the future growth of the shrimp industry will be.

Collecting and processing shrimp specimens for disease control

In light of this, the IAEA has been assisting Belize in developing nuclear and molecular diagnostic and control techniques and strengthening capacities in animal health management through several initiatives, including the development of the Animal Health Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory. This project was initiated in 2010 with the training of three staff in molecular diagnostics of shrimp diseases, avian diseases and bovine diseases respectively. In addition, equipment and consumables and reagents and on the ground expert services were provided. Shrimp disease diagnostics was the first established in support of the shrimp industry in testing for diseases of OIE importance as well as those of economic importance. The BAHA Belize City PCR laboratory started PCR testing of aquatic animal samples in 2010 and in February 2012 participated in its first inter laboratory proficiency test (Ring test) offered by the OIE Reference lab in Arizona for shrimp diseases. The lab successfully tested 10 unknown samples for 5 shrimp diseases: white spot disease (WSD), Taura syndrome (TS), infectious hypodermal and hematopoietic necrosis (IHHN), yellow head disease (YHD) and infectious myonecrosis (IMN). By the end of 2012, the BAHA Belize City PCR laboratory tested more than 500 samples. All farm sampling and testing were done on a cost recovery basis. This continues to be the practice.

Field work for the control and monitoring avian diseases (e.g. avian influenza)

In 2013, the shrimp industry increased to 9 farms, and the testing capacity of the laboratory also increased to 6 diseases, with necrotising hepatopancreatitis (NHP) being added to the list. Then, by the end of 2014, 8 of the 14 operational shrimp farms were sampled and tested for these OIE listed diseases. Despite the setbacks that were experienced along the way, the molecular diagnostic capacity in aquatic animal diseases was realized and showed tremendous potential for further growth and strengthening. The growth in the shrimp industry, though met with production setbacks caused by diseases, still shows the significant investment potential of this sector and further requests for the development of a Government facilitated genetic program in country that can help farmers identify better family lines that are more tolerant or resistant to diseases.

View of the contruction site of the new BSL2 PCR laboratory in Belize 

From 2012 to present, the IAEA assisted in the further strengthening of diagnostic capacity by training part of the technical personnel at the OIE shrimp disease reference laboratory in real time PCR techniques, as well as assisting the laboratory’s participation in the inter-laboratory proficiency (calibration) testing program, which is offered semi-annually by the shrimp disease reference laboratory in Arizona, USA. By this, the Aquatic Animal Health Services has been able to use its laboratory testing capabilities along with the continued aquaculture farm/enterprise inspections and sample testing to provide a full certification program for exports of live aquatic animals and products of aquatic animal origin. The commitment to continue funding this initiative and others like it will ensure that the Belize aquaculture sector sees improved aquatic animal health and productivity, and ultimately, a sustainable food producing industry in the country.

The Government of Belize, through additional assistance of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), proposed to construct a new BSL2 level molecular laboratory at BAHA, Central Farm, Cayo. The new facility started operation in April 2015 and houses both aquatic and terrestrial disease diagnostic laboratory services. The IAEA funded BZE/5/007 project to establish and strengthen molecular diagnostic techniques for avian diseases is well underway. The commitment to continue funding these initiatives will ensure that the Belizean agricultural sector sees improved animal productivity and health, ultimately enhancing sustainable food security in the country.

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