UP part of 3-year ELEPHANT project to address health challenges arising from human, animal interaction such as COVID-19

The Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria (UP) is one of the leading partners in the Erasmus+ ELEPHANT project which will boost the capacity of the participating partner institutions in solving complex issues relating to the health of humans and animals.

The ELEPHANT (Empowering universities’ Learning and rEsearch caPacities in the one Health Approach for the maNagement of animals at the wildlife, livestock and human interface in SouTh Africa) project is a result of funding that was awarded to a consortium of eight higher education institutions (HEIs), including UP. Through the project, the institutions will receive a series of workshops and training opportunities that address core skills related to the One Health approach.

UP academic and a member of the ELEPHANT project steering committee Professor Anita Michel explained One Health as an approach that recognises that the health of humans and animals as well as the environment is connected.

“The One Health (OH) approach recognises that the health and wellbeing of people cannot be adequately secured and harnessed if we focus our health interventions on people only.  The OH approach takes into full consideration that the many ways in which people, animals (both domestic and wild) and the environment we live in continuously interact with each other, directly or indirectly, can have very serious negative effects for any of us – be it people, animals or the environment. In short, this means that people can only be healthy if they live in a healthy environment (e.g. air and water free from pollutants) and are surrounded by healthy animals (e.g. for food or companionship).

“The aim of the OH approach is to find the best possible approach to address and solve complex health problems, (i.e. diseases in people which come from animals) by uniting the expertise from specialists in the human health sector, in animal health and in the environmental sciences. Collaboration and common goals between those that are responsible for maintaining the health of people on the one side, for animal health and environmental affairs on the other sides is the crux of making One Health work,” Prof Michel said.

With the coronavirus COVID-19 as an example of diseases that can have a devastating impact on human health, Prof Michel added that it is becoming increasingly important to have projects such as this.

“As a matter of fact, many of the diseases causing illnesses in people are also affecting specific animal species and these so-called zoonotic diseases can be transmitted from animals to humans in some cases by direct contact or otherwise via food, water and other ways. Animals serve many different purposes in the lives of people. People have direct contact with a wide range of animals as part of their daily work (e.g. farmers, farm workers, butchers, animal health practitioners, etc.) or for recreational purposes (companion animals, horse riding, etc.). To prevent any zoonotic diseases from our domestic animals it is very important to keep those animals healthy and free from diseases.

“Wild animals can harbour infections which are life threatening to people but not to themselves. As they normally live far away from and do not get into close contact with people, there is no risk for people to contract these diseases. If, however, people encroach into wildlife habitats to utilise those habitats for agriculture, logging or to capture wild animals for human consumption we see outbreaks of deadly diseases such as Ebola and the new coronavirus,” she said.

The project will run for three years, 2020-2022, and will benefit the research staff and postgraduate students involved by providing them with various training and networking opportunities.

“Five of the six South African HEIs recruit their students primarily from previously disadvantaged communities and project ELEPHANT offers a particularly important opportunity to these HEIs to embark on and embrace the One Health approach in their learning and research. The One Health-related research activities which are promoted by project ELEPHANT are seeking to improve the management of animals at the wildlife/livestock/human interface by involving the relevant local communities, making them project beneficiaries.  The former National Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries as well as the Department of Science and Technology, amongst others, officially support project ELEPHANT as 'associate partners' based on the benefit of the project on their mandate,” Prof Michel explained.

The other HEIs involved in the ELEPHANT Project include: Utrecht University in the Netherlands and the University of Bologna in Italy, the University of Venda, University of Limpopo, University of Mpumalanga, University of Fort Hare and the Southern African Wildlife College. The consortium is led by the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University.

The ELEPHANT project is co-financed by the Erasmus+ KA2 Capacity Building in Higher Education (CBHE).

Prof Anita Michel

March 5, 2020

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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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