Zoonotic Diseases in Livestock – Mitigating Risk Behaviour

Sofia Boqvist, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Biomedical Science and Veterinary Public Health, sofia.boqvist@slu.se
Ulf Magnusson, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Clinical Sciences

The aims of this workshop are to identify human risk behaviours related to zoonoses in low-income countries and consequently to de-sign interventions that will help prevent them in the long term.

Zoonoses in low-income countries

The majority of emerging diseases in humans and many infectious ones are zoonotic. In many cases, they originate from livestock which can serve as a bridge for disease trans-mission between animals and humans. Thus, controlling zoonotic diseases in livestock is an important means to reduce infectious disease threats to humans. Zoonotic diseases are a threat not only to public health, but also to food production, food safety, animal welfare, and rural livelihood. The most severe infec-tions are also a threat to international trade as outbreaks lead to the imposition of trade restrictions.

The transmission of zoonotic pathogens is more common in low-income countries where people often live in close proximity to their animals, hygienic conditions are likely to be poor and the population may lack  knowledge about zoonotic hazards or are unable to  prioritize biosecurity measures. This workshop will therefore focus on the conditions in low- income countries. Obviously, there are several factors influencing the risk of transmission of these pathogens from livestock to humans, some of which derive from human behaviour.

The workshop will focus on the following questions to be able to design interventions that will prevent transmission of zoonotic pathogens:

  • What incentives can be provided for farm-ers to contribute to the public good, for example to vaccinate livestock and to con-tribute to increased food safety? How can this be made economically sustainable?

  • What are the economic incentives for implementing control measures against

  •  zoonotic diseases at farm and societal level?

  • What is the importance of culture and tra-ditions in livestock keeping for the risk of transmitting zoonotic infections?

  • Why do livestock owners continue with cer-tain behaviours even if they know they are linked to the risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases?

  • What motivates a change of behaviour and how can such a change be made to last?


Emerging and endemic zoonoses

Avian influenza caused by the H5N1 virus and SARS are examples of well-known emerging zoonoses. These diseases spread almost all over the world and in 2009, WHO classified the Avi-an influenza epidemic as a pandemic. National governments often pay these kind of zoonoses a great deal of attention and subsequently take forceful actions – if they have the capacity – such as vaccination campaigns, control of travellers, restrictions of animal movements, etc. However, endemic zoonoses, i.e. constantly present diseas-es, do not receive that much attention and action is seldom taken – at least in most low-income countries – to eradicate or control them, despite the fact that they contribute considerably to a country’s Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALY) and impair animal production.

Conflict between the private and the public good

Besides the technical challenges, such as ap-propriate diagnostics and efficient treatment
or prophylaxis, there are several non-technical challenges related to controlling zoonotic diseas-es in livestock.

One challenge is the issue of the private versus the public good as regards the vaccination of livestock. For instance, if a disease is endemic in an area, the disease incidence may be low due to high herd immunity and/or the clinical signs might be mild. In these cases, the incentive for the farmers to spend resources on vaccination of their animals might be low. However, vaccinating livestock may have a very positive effect on public health as it reduces the circulation and transmission of pathogens to humans. So, is it the responsibility of the farmers to vaccinate their livestock for the sake of public health?

Furthermore, knowledge does not translate automatically into changed behaviour. One classic example is smoking: many people continue to smoke despite their awareness of the detrimental effect smoking has on their health. Similar risk behaviours are associated with the spread of zoonotic diseases: knowledge and awareness do not markedly reduce practices associated with increased zoonosis exposure (1). Why is there a knowledge-to-behaviour gap, and what moti-vates people to change a risk behaviour?

Woman at greater threat to zoonotic diseases?

There is often a traditional division of labour between men and women when rearing live-stock. Generally women are more often responsible for small livestock, such as sheep, goats, pigs and poultry, whereas men have the main responsibility for large livestock such as cattle. Women are also often close to the animals as they are responsible for milking, feeding and watering them, cleaning barns and looking after the young and sick. It has also been established that the revenue from livestock kept by women is used to provide food and run the family (2). Does this close contact with livestock make women more exposed to zoonotic diseases?

Inadequate attention paid to low-profile endemic diseases

Emerging diseases of pandemic potential are prioritised by the international community and seen as global threats, even if they are of comparatively limited importance to impoverished communities. This may result in an exacerbated neglect of endemic zoonotic diseases that al-ready receive inadequate attention due to lack of quantitative and qualitative data (1). Endemic diseases generally attract little interest from do-nors, who are more prone to invest in emerging diseases despite the well-known fact that, for example, a lack of clean water and poor sanitiza-tion cause lethal child diarrhoea and thus constitute one of the most significant global disease burdens. How can global donors be encouraged to invest more in controlling endemic diseases that create few headlines in the press?

The final challenge that will be highlighted here is how to implement a true One-Health approach. To successfully combat zoonotic diseases, the public health sector and the veterinary sector have to communicate and work together.

The challenges are present on all levels in society, from government and national agencies to local government, as well as within the research community. For example, how can we increase collaboration between experts in social science, economics, human medicine and veterinary medicine? How can we go from talking about One Health to providing more proof of the con-cept?

Brucella in livestock: our starting point

In the workshop, we will use the case of brucel-losis in peri-urban farming in the capital Dushanbe of the Central Asian country, Tajikistan, as an entry point for the discussion. Brucellosis is one of the most widespread zoonotic diseases globally present in livestock and is of substan-tial public health and economic importance. A high incidence among humans and livestock in Central Asia has been reported by the FAO and WHO.

In Tajikistan, a large proportion of the population earn their livelihood in the livestock sector. However, Brucella is widespread among livestock in the urban and peri-urban areas of Dushanbe, and there is a high seroprevalence of the bacterium in cattle, goat and sheep. This constitutes a serious risk to public health and causes significant economic losses. It has also been shown that poor knowledge, several high-risk behaviours and a willingness to learn more provide the rationale for controlling this disease. Examples of high-risk behaviours were the consumption of unpasteurized dairy products and not wearing protective clothing when handling potentially infectious materials like aborted foetuses and discharges (3).

The workshop discussion will broaden out from this starting point. We will cover the foodborne nature of the bacteria and the incentives that can be offered to farmers to improve food safety. What are the lessons to be learnt from previous international vaccination programmes in the livestock sector?

Some risk behaviours are based on culture and tradition and often have clear gender dimen-sions. Can these traditions in livestock keeping be modified?
What motivation can be provided to achieve a lasting behaviour change that will reduce the risk of transmitting zoonotic infections?


  1. Osbjer K. 2016. Zoonoses in Rural Cambodia – A One Health Perspective on Influenza and Campylobacter. Doctoral Thesis No. 2016:46, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Sciences, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
  2. Wieland, B., Kinati, W. and Mulema, A.A. 2016. Sheep are like fast-growing cabbage: Gender dimensions of small ruminant health in Ethiopia. In: Pyburn, R. and Eerdewijk, A. van. 2016. A different kettle of fish? Gender integration in livestock and fish research. Volendam: LM
  3. Lindahl Rajala, E. 2016. Brucella in Tajikistan – Zoonotic Risks of Urbanized Livestock in a Low-Income Country. Doctoral Thesis No. 2016:111, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Sciences, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences