UP research waves the red flag against BTB

Prof Anita Michel of the Department of Veterinary Tropical Diseases in the Faculty of Veterinary Science strongly doubts that there is a single buffalo herd in the nearly two million hectares of the Kruger National Park (KNP) that does not have bovine tuberculosis (BTB). For the past 20 years, Prof Michel and her colleagues spearheaded BTB research. Despite significant progress in the research, Prof Michel notes a considerable spread of the disease over the past two decades.

BTB is a chronic disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis that can affect all mammals (including humans). Infected animals suffer from a general state of illness and coughing. Other symptoms include progressive emaciation, chronic respiratory distress and eventual death.

While BTB has been drastically reduced in cattle during the 1970s, the disease is re-emerging and eradication has now become an almost impossible task as wildlife act as a reservoir for the disease. Humans mainly contract the disease by ingesting contaminated milk or dairy products or handling infected animals. The threat of the disease, however, lies in the wildlife reservoirs mentioned, which has the potential to be catastrophic. This can have far-reaching consequences for conservation and tourism. Trading of animals also becomes an intricate issue when areas are identified as BTB zones. Because of the interface between wildlife and livestock, commercial and rural farmers are also at high risk of suffering losses, should cattle contract the disease from wildlife that have crossed reserve boundaries.  

Prof Michel explains that social species are at greater risk of contracting BTB than solitary species. In addition to buffalo, greater kudu also carry and transmit the disease. Keeping kudu confined to game reserves is a difficult task as they can easily jump fences. BTB has the potential to cause grievous devastation of a species, regardless of its conservation status. When predators consume infected meat, ‘they literally eat BTB by the kilogramme,’ says Prof Michel. Recently BTB was diagnosed in the endangered African wild dog, which is alarming news considering the potential impact on conservation efforts. Prof Michel and her colleagues have diagnosed the disease in 21 wild mammal species in South Africa. Over the years, this University of Pretoria (UP) research team, led by Prof Michel, has developed a thorough database of M bovis strains, using genetic characterisation tools to study the strains in domestic cattle herds and wildlife populations. This database enables them to use genetic characterisation tools to study the M bovis strains, which makes it possible to trace the location where the strain originated. Thanks to the database, they were able to detect that the strain present in the BTB outbreak of 2009 in Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe, originated in the KNP.

Under the supervision of Prof Michel, a recent PhD study showed the spreading power of the disease across very well-maintained fences into communal cattle areas west of the KNP. The research team has also done work on BTB in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park in KwaZulu-Natal and surrounding communal areas. Over the years of studying and tracking the disease, Michel noted how game translocations between farms and provinces have increased the disease’s prevalence.

Currently, Prof Michel is trying to determine which wildlife species are reservoirs for BTB. Initial findings indicate that buffaloes are and she believes kudu are as well. Prof Michel suspects that warthogs may also pose a potential threat owing to their wide distribution. By developing BTB tests for several species, Michel will be able to have a better understanding of which animals are most affected.

A large part of the research is done in collaboration with the international community and the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute. The UP research team works particularly closely with Utrecht University, with which it has a memorandum of understanding. Joint research projects and postgraduate supervisions allow for beneficial cross-pollination. Prof Michel and her colleagues also work with government and the game industry to manage the disease and prevent further transmissions.

Future research holds great promise. Prof Michel hopes to facilitate feasible methods of control that have a sound scientific base. Finding alternative control measures such as vaccinations is high on the agenda. While it cannot yet be said whether vaccination is viable, UP is collaborating with a very successful BTB research group in Spain on developing an effective vaccine. Spain is severely affected by BTB owing to its wildlife reservoir: the wild boar.  

Earlier this year, the Faculty of Veterinary Science held the first ever BTB Outreach Day, aimed at bringing together important stakeholders to inform them of the many concerns regarding the disease. Prof Michel says a key point that the Faculty wanted to make is that the disease ‘is on the go and on the move and can reach you any time’. Reflecting on the event, she says that it was very well attended and well received. Many farmers and owners of game farms had to learn about the disease the hard way when their animals were already infected. The event equipped stakeholders with knowledge and Prof Michel says there may be more such events in the future.

Prof Anita Michel

May 12, 2015

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  • Professor Anita Michel
    Professor Anita Michel of the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria (UP) is trialling an important vaccination in the fight against bovine tuberculosis.
    Having qualified as a veterinarian in Germany, she obtained her first postgraduate degree from Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich and her PhD from Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

    Prof Michel has worked as a research veterinarian for 20 years and has headed the laboratory for diagnosis and research on mycobacterial diseases at the ARC Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute. She joined UP’s Faculty of Veterinary in 2009, where she has since been involved in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and research.

    Her research focuses mainly on the epidemiology, diagnosis and control of bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis in livestock and wildlife, with a particular interest in One Health. Prof Michel is an internationally recognised (B2-rated) scientist who has 123 publications in scientific peer-reviewed journals, 11 book chapters and 115 conference presentations under her belt, and 26 MSc and PhD students who have graduated under her supervision.

    How did you become interested in bovine tuberculosis (TB)?
    I like challenges, and have always been interested in infectious diseases of animals which are complex and still poorly understood. I started off as a virologist, and when bovine TB was discovered in African buffalo, I did not hesitate to accept the challenge offered to me.

    How serious is bovine TB as both a zoonotic disease and something that could affect food security?
    Before pasteurisation made milk safe for human consumption, a considerable percentage of people suffering from TB in Europe actually had bovine TB, because so many cattle herds were infected. If you translate that to communities who consume untreated milk and whose cattle are not monitored for bovine TB, we can see that this disease can pose a serious health threat and should not be ignored.

    Is the kind of TB found among African buffalo similar to the disease that affects cows?
    Domestic cattle and African buffalo, lions, kudus and many other wild animal species can all be affected by bovine TB. Usually the disease spreads from cattle to wildlife.

    Would the vaccine that you are working on be useful for farmers in this regard?
    Very much so. The vaccination approach is two-pronged in that we ultimately aim to protect the main domestic and wild reservoir species against bovine TB, meaning cattle and buffalo. Protecting cattle from bovine TB reduces both the risk of zoonotic TB in people and production losses to farmers.

    Has COVID-19 raised awareness of the importance of studying zoonotic diseases?
    Even if many people knew about the existence of zoonotic diseases, few realised how serious their impact could be. Following the experience with COVID-19, there is probably a general expectation among the public that research into diseases that are able to cause pandemics, whether zoonotic or not, will be intensified in future.

    TB is a serious concern in South Africa. What should farmers and game rangers be on the lookout for to determine whether a herd of cows or buffalo are presenting symptoms of bovine TB?
    Prevention is really the only measure to keep cattle or wildlife populations free of bovine TB. For this reason, cattle and game owners should make sure that the animals they buy into their herds don’t have bovine TB. If owners are unsure about the health status of their animals, they should make sure that each animal that dies or is slaughtered/hunted is examined by a veterinary professional for possible signs of bovine TB. In the case of cattle, state veterinary services conduct TB testing on cattle herds to establish their status.

    What do you enjoy most about your research?
    The challenges and surprises that research holds for us. I feel motivated by even the smallest grain of new knowledge coming from our research that improves our understanding of bovine TB or other aspects of veterinary science.
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