THIS week we want to look at an increasingly evolving approach in veterinary science. This is a branch or approach in veterinary science which is known as participatory epidemiology.
Participatory epidemiology can be defined as the systematic use of participatory approaches and methods to improve understanding of diseases and options for animal disease control.
It is an emerging field that is based on the use of participatory techniques for the harvesting of qualitative epidemiological intelligence contained within community observations, existing veterinary knowledge and traditional oral history.
It relies on the widely accepted techniques of participatory rural appraisal, ethno-veterinary surveys and qualitative epidemiology. The information obtained from participatory epidemiology and ethno-veterinary surveys can be used to design better animal health responses and animal health delivery systems.
In simpler language participatory epidemiology refers to a livestock extension system that recognises the existence of indigenous or experiential knowledge among the smallholder farmers and using that knowledge to design appropriate and relevant intervention mechanisms in addressing animal health challenges.
It is my strong submission that the division of veterinary services under the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development must strengthen this approach in the discharge of their veterinary mandate.
I am aware that already efforts are underway to internalise this approach and hence this instalment is a vote of confidence in that direction.
Previously veterinary approaches have been largely top down just like most of the Government extension service s and this resulted in poor knowledge and skills transfer from the extension officers to the communities.
Communities become passive recipients of information and disease control approaches with no room for their input.
Needless to say, this has serious limitations. A typical example is that it is common to get to a village and hear that animals were vaccinated last week and no single farmer is able to tell you what they were vaccinating against.
All they can tell you is that inkomo zami zahlatshwa. This obviously means the officer did not find it important to share with the farmers what he/she was doing and why he/she was doing it.
However participatory epidemiology tells us that most of the veterinary breakthroughs in terms of disease control and treatments are credited to the contribution of the farmers as their intrinsic knowledge and observations have guided research.
A classical example being the Maasai pastoralists who suggested that the wildebeest was associated with the epidemiology of malignant catarrhal fever. The malignant catarrhal fever results in cattle falling blind.
The Maasai recognised that the wildebeest calving season was the time when most of their animals would become blind and they responded by avoiding wildebeest during the calving season.
It is also well documented that the transmission of foot and mouth disease from buffaloes to cattle is high during the calving season of the buffaloes and farmers who live is buffalo areas avoid herding their cattle in areas where the buffaloes also graze. Even the origin of knowledge about tick borne disease reveals that it was a farmer who observed that ticks were transmitting a disease to his animals. By involving farmers in disease control approaches and taking time to learn from their own knowledge a lot can be achieved as opposed to the top down unidirectional approaches. It is no secret that the majority of our smallholder farmers live in areas where they have very little access to the veterinary services but they are managing to raise their herds.
This means there are some disease control or treatment practices which they are using and it is working for them.
This is the wealth of disease identification and control that our own extension services can benefit from by adopting the participatory epidemiology approach. Even imposing such disease control measures like quarantines will be less painful if farmers are actively involved in disease control processes and they have space to offer suggestions rather than being recipients of military fashioned instructions.
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