Livestock and Maternal Health in Ethiopia

Inception of a project on Livestock and Maternal Health in Ethiopia

“Tukul” (traditional house) in Butajira area with mother and children. The livestock is kept inside, where people also cook and sleep
“Tukul” (traditional house) in Butajira area with mother and children. The livestock is kept inside, where people also cook and sleep

I first visited Ethiopia— the country with “13 months of sunshine” (beware that some heavy rains do come across a number of them!) and the largest cattle population in Africa (crucial fact for a vet!)— 10 years ago and I had a firm intention of coming back. Years later, the HORN project (One Health Regional Network for the Horn of Africa) gave me the incredible opportunity to do so. HORN’s aim is to develop a network of researchers and organisations across the Horn of Africa with the view to undertake high quality research into the underlying relationship between people’s health and wellbeing and that of livestock and the environment. I am now a HORN postdoc associated to the University of Liverpool as well as a visiting scientist at ILRI.

I am a vet and as expected, I have always loved animals. I have also been fascinated by people, the environment and the interplay between them for the better or worse. In a nutshell, One Health has always been an attractive approach to me.

After graduating with a degree in veterinary medicine from the French National Vetschool of Alfort and with an advanced master’s degree on risk management at AgroParisTech, I subsequently embarked on a PhD with Cirad on a zoonotic and vector-borne disease, Rift Valley fever, in Mayotte, a French tropical island. During the course of the research, I have applied different approaches ranging from mathematical modelling to surveillance system evaluation and participatory epidemiology.

Then I spent 4 extremely enriching years working as an animal health policy officer at the French Ministry of Agriculture. I have truly enjoyed working on a diversity of subjects including surveillance and control of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases, in wild and domestic animals, in collaboration with a number of stakeholders: farmers and vets’ associations, scientific experts, as well as European and international institutions.

The past 1.5 years with the HORN project has also been extremely exciting, notably the network building and experience sharing as well as getting involved in several vector-borne diseases projects and two FAO emergency response to RVF in the region.

But the specific reason why I’m now a privileged recipient of a One Health Soulsby fellowship comes from proposing to explore a topic somewhat novel to me: the connection between livestock (an essential component of Ethiopian life) and maternal health (a major public health issue in Ethiopia) in a data gold mine: Butajira Rural Health Program, a Health and demographic surveillance study (HDSS) site. We were introduced to this study site, located 136km away from the capital, by the late co-I from the HORN project Prof Fikre. The site was established more than 30 years ago and is now registering consistent health and demographic data for 70,000+ people (you can read more about Butajira here).

A mother-child cohort study has been enrolling pregnant women and their expected children in Butajira, studying the effects of nutrition on pregnancy outcomes. This cohort study offers the perfect opportunity to document the risks and benefits for pregnant women of owning livestock by collecting additional data on the access for women to animal source foods, the presence of zoonoses in women and their livestock and the knowledge, attitude and common practices of women towards zoonoses.

Livestock production has indeed been frequently promoted as a pathway out of poverty, however livestock can also be a threat when it comes to zoonoses. Women often come last for benefiting from the money or the meat but first for bearing the responsibilities for cooking or milking, the burden of which can be compounded by pregnancy with a higher susceptibility to infectious diseases.

I hope this study confers an opportunity to mainstream One Health approach in the context of maternal health as well as in the public health oriented HDSS research community and I am extremely thankful to the people who have been tirelessly supporting the development of this project and with whom I will collaborate to implement it, especially Drs Mor, Tadesse and Seifu. I am looking forward to sharing in another blog the next steps of this project as soon as the COVID-19 situation allows us to start the field work!

Lisa Cavalerie