Cows, coffee and culture: A month in Ethiopia

Posted on September 29, 2017 by Sara Robson

Ethiopia blog image 1I am a final year Cambridge vet student with a keen interest in international development and sustainable livestock production, which is an area rarely touched on during the course at vet school. I therefore decided that I would like to pursue my interest by undertaking my final year elective project in this field. Whilst the majority of student projects are Cambridge based, I decided that I wanted to venture further afield, so asked Prof. James Wood for some help setting up a project, since he is involved in several interesting international projects, including ETHICOBOTS; Ethiopia Control of Bovine Tuberculosis. James put me in touch with his PhD student, Bedaso Mamo, who is doing similar work on brucellosis.

We came up with a project aiming to assess the knowledge base of small scale dairy farmers (defined as owning fewer than just 20 cows!) towards brucellosis in the urban and surrounding rural areas of Bishoftu; a small town around 45km South-East of the capital Addis Ababa. Brucellosis is considered as one of the neglected zoonotic infections worldwide, which remains a significant public and animal health concern in many developing countries. Ethiopia is reported to have the largest livestock population in Africa and the majority of its population relies on agriculture as both a source of nutrition and income. abortion and reduced milk yield due to brucellosis due to brucellosis can be a major economic constraint for farmers, as well as the high risk of zoonotic transmission due to the close contact with their animals. Improving the knowledge, attitudes and practices among livestock owners could have a positive impact on the reduction of brucellosis and other zoonotic diseases.

Brucellosis and knowledge gaps

Ethiopia blog image 3I spent the month of August, with the help of Bedaso, carrying out a cross sectional study visiting dairy farms in the town and surrounding rural areas with a questionnaire that I had devised. In total, we interviewed 99 farmers to obtain information on socio-demographics, herd characteristics, knowledge, attitudes and practices relating to brucellosis, with the aim of identifying knowledge gaps and the potential risks for contracting the disease that are present for dairy farmers and their families. The majority (92%) had never heard of brucellosis, with no difference between urban and rural areas. A higher proportion had heard of a disease causing late term abortion (36% urban, 9% rural), but very few had knowledge of the knowledge of the cause, transmission routes or whether humans could be infected. 26 farmers reported to have had at least one incidence of late term abortion in their herd, and almost everyone wanted to receive more information about the disease.

Awareness of zoonotic diseases in general was higher (n=56), with 42 aware that humans can get diseases via consumption of raw milk, and 25 reported the dangers of raw meat, but very few were aware of the risks through direct contact with infected animals. Unsurprisingly, high risk behaviours were found to be common among the farmers; over half (54%) never wear gloves when dealing with calving and aborted material, and very few correctly dispose of the placenta and aborted foetus. Interestingly, despite the low knowledge levels, almost all respondents (89%) reported to boil milk before drinking it. However, 90% would still consume raw milk products, and 76% consume raw meat. Poor knowledge of the disease and the presence of several high-risk behaviours, but an interest and willingness to learn supports the reasoning for including an education awareness program as part of future control programs, to help mitigate the risks of both human and animal exposure.

Research abroad

I am a keen traveller and love to meet new people and experience new places. Despite having travelled before, I have never done a research project abroad so I was keen to experience what it can be like working in a foreign country, both the ups and downs. There were indeed a few logistical difficulties that at times were frustrating, but I took it all in my stride and got used to the fact that sometimes things just take a little longer than you’d hope! I met some very interesting people and enjoyed learning more about the way of life and farming practices in Ethiopia.

Stumbles and silver linings

Ethipia blog image 4Alongside my research, I had also been well underway with training for the York Marathon this October; what better place to train than the land of long distance running! Turns out that being a very obviously foreign girl running through the Ethiopian countryside was a bit of a novel sight for many of the locals, so I often managed to attract a few young runners alongside me for stints of my run which made it all the more enjoyable. Unfortunately, just a few days before I was due to come home, whilst out on a short recovery run a couple of days after my first 18-miler, I felt an extreme pain in my foot which left me unable to walk not even a mile into my run, and had to get a baja back to the hotel! Thankfully, some travel insurance which I’d picked up through the University (completely free!) turned out to be second to none, and they immediately arranged for me to be taken to a clinic in Addis to get it checked out. Unfortunately, it turned out that I had a metatarsal stress fracture, which was a great disappointment as it meant that my marathon plans for this October are out of the window. The silver lining, however, was that the insurance people insisted that I would need enough room to put my foot up during the flight home, so upgraded me to business class all for free! I therefore thoroughly enjoyed my flight home and took full advantage of the free flowing champagne!

Overall I had a fantastic time in Bishoftu. The research work was very interesting, I met some lovely people, ate some fantastic food, drank gallons of delicious coffee and even enjoyed a some glorious sunshine (in between the rainstorms!). I would like to say a massive thank you to the both the BVA and the Harry-Steele Bodger memorial fund for giving me this opportunity; without their support, none of this would have been possible.

Sara Robson

Written by Sara Robson

Sara is a final year vet student at Cambridge University and recipient of the Harry Steele-Bodger Memorial Travel Scholarship 2017.