Rabies in Kyrgyzstan. Mad Cow Disease in Britain. And brucellosis, everywhere, all through Asia and up into Russia. Palmerston North zoonoses epidemiologist Ron Jackson's had an interesting retirement, tracking and helping prevent animal diseases that infect humans, and tells reporter Lee Matthews that he doesn't see he'll ever have time to stop working.
Minus 35 degrees Celsius, there's a metre of snow on the ground and more in the air, and the toilet is outside, over there, past the sheepfold.
The Himalayan mountains squat bulky-shouldered on the high plains, almost close enough to touch in the moonlight. And Ron Jackson, 77, Palmerston North zoonoses epidemiologist with Massey University's EpiCentre, is thinking about rabies.
Rabies and brucellosis and hydatids, and how to track which animals might have these diseases, and how to stop them spreading to humans.
He's in Kyrgyzstan. Where? It's OK, the Manawatu Standard couldn't spell it unaided either. Think of Marco Polo's Silk Road, the high hinterlands where China and Russia used to tussle for control of the 'Stans; where country borders are more about who is related to whom in the traditional Khan family lines than any lines drawn on a map. Dr Jackson's there on behalf of the World Bank, the United Nations, the FIO, to to set up pilot programmes to stop animal diseases like hydatids and anthrax, and tomorrow he'll climb into calving overalls and take blood samples from animals so skinny and hardy that a Kiwi farmer would struggle to recognise them as meat and wool and milk producers.
He doesn't delegate this job to local veterinarians. He works alongside. Being on the business end of the blood-sampling needle proves to village farmers that he knows what he's talking about, knows animals, understands what they need; it's the best way any overseas expert can establish credibility, working around language and cultural differences.
"Farmers are farmers, the world over. Especially sheep farmers ... always grumbling, the weather's never right," he says, joking.
It's a long way from his former rural veterinary practice in Central Otago, tending flocks of fat, well-muscled bundles of top-grade wool on legs, but there's a satisfaction in being on the roof of the world.
"I remember when I was a kid reading about the Pamir and the big annual migrations they'd make, taking sheep and goats up to high pastures in the summer where there'd be a bit of grass. I haven't yet got right into the Pamir, but maybe one day."
Dr Jackson's work can't be done from a desk in Geneva or Brussels. The funding might come from there, and his reports certainly land on those desks, but a lot of his work is in the animal pens in villages often so small GoogleEarth squints to see them.
But the results are big, in a way that this generation of New Zealanders might have difficulty imagining. New Zealand has eradicated brucellosis, and hydatids is well under control. Rabies isn't an issue here; nor mad cow disease. But they're big problems through Asia and the Caucasus, especially in countries where the political systems and the economies have collapsed like falling dominoes, and civil war has put the bloody cherry on top of a bad situation.
Kyrgyzstan's a case in point.
A former Soviet bloc satellite state, everything collapsed when the Russians said no more, and walked off in the 1990s. Several generations of people accustomed to having everything handed to them by the state suddenly had to fend for themselves, with little infrastructure and less money.
They went from living in collectivised Soviet-style enclaves where the state owned and looked after every animal, back to the traditional ways. Families supported themselves on pockets of land, keeping goats, some sheep, maybe a cow, and growing vegetables and fabulous cold-climate fruit such as apricots and apples. Subsistence, not a cash economy. Eating well in a good season, but not producing enough to create a cash economy.
And the animal diseases flourished. Dr Jackson says there'd been well-trained veterinarians and care under the old Soviet system, but it disappeared with the Russians. And the disease management programmes they left behind were designed for big collective farms, not suitable for family smallholds.
The biggest carriers of rabies in this country were the dogs. Kyrgyzstanis love dogs the way Kiwis love cats, but – and this was tricky for somebody trying to set up a vaccination programme – nobody knew how many dogs there were. "Lots and lots, every shape and size and colour you can think of" doesn't release project pursestrings in Brussels or New York.
Dr Jackson says the villages had health collective committees, mostly run by women, who knew everyone and everything in their village. He got a small amount of funding – "US$20 for two days' work, and apparently that was overpaying them" – for the committees to census the dogs. The figure that came back astonished him; there was one dog for every three people in Kyrgyzstan.
"So then we knew how many microchips we needed, and how many doses of vaccine. We set up a pilot programme and vaccinated for rabies, and started dosing four times a year against hydatids ... and started educating people about the link between dogs' diets and hydatids."
Dogs can get hydatids if they eat raw sheep offal or meat. It was a rare household that didn't have the dog as bottom end of the consumable recycling chain, chomping on the last of the sheep carcass.
He recently finished a five-year pilot programme for brucellosis in Tajikistan. In that time, the incidence of the disease dropped from 10 per cent down to 1.5 per cent, and there were corresponding big drops in cases of undulant fever in humans. Humans get their side of the disease at calving unless strict hygiene is observed, and it can also be carried in unpasteurised milk. Undulant fever's nasty; humans get sick with recurring bouts of fever and are often left with a form of arthritis, making it difficult for them to work.
"And in those societies, if you can't work, it gets pretty difficult in a subsistence-level household."
The budgets were useful amounts of money, but always more could be done with more.
"You'd get a nine or 10 million American dollars to run a pilot, across five years. But you always had to set priorities ... in one case we decided we couldn't actually afford the eight or 10 cents each to ear tag animals for identification, because that money would be better spent on more vaccine. So it was the old-fashioned way, notching ears."
The priority was setting up systems that would work, and be sustainable.
"Our programmes try to get the government to pay for the vaccine, and for the farmers to bear the cost of getting a veterinarian or technician to administer the vaccines and tests."
He says the secret to future success will be to keep working at village level, with the animals' owners seeing firsthand the benefits.
His vet's eye was intrigued by the breeds – or lack thereof – of the animals he encountered. He came to the conclusion that the scraggy, tough animals he was dealing with were right for the conditions they lived in.
"They don't have good genetic material, and breeding's uncontrolled. But when you look at the distances the animals have to walk, the poor grazing, the temperatures they have to cope with, you'd have to really think hard before you started crossing big production animal genes into that mix."
New Zealand's big glossy dairy cows, fed to produce 15 litres of milk each day, wouldn't survive. And the family owners wouldn't know what to do with 15 litres of milk each day; a family could use perhaps three or four, which is the average output for their cows.
"No processing. No transport to get milk to processing. No roads, really, for transport. Not what we'd call roads, anyway."
Dr Jackson came to this work relatively late in his career. An Australian, he came to New Zealand as a youngster on a government bursary to work at Edendale, which led to 30 years as a rural practice veterinarian in Otago. Then in 1990, turning 61 and looking for something interesting to do in his retirement, he and wife Jean moved to Palmerston North and he did a PhD in epidemiology at Massey University.
"I was the oldest student there."
That led to UN and World Bank contract epidemiology work with Massey University's EpiCentre, which offers expertise in the understanding and control of disease in animal populations, the transmission of disease from animals to humans, and hazards in food of animal origin. Its work is world-class, and epidemiologists like Dr Jackson are called in as prevention consultants, and as experts when diseases break out of control, such as Britain's last foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.
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