Donors visit Kudu Rabies Project

Windhoek: Donors to the Kudu Rabies Project will visit the quarantine facility of the project today.

The quarantine facility was recently established some 40 kilometres north of Omaruru after a team of specialists under the leadership of Dr Rainer Hassel of Agra, including Dr Fonnie Bruwer of Agra ProVision, and Dr Adriaan Vos, senior scientist of IDT Biologika GmbH from Dessau in Germany, and technical support staff started their work, a world-first for Namibia.

IDT Biologika provided an oral vaccine for experimental use in Kudus.

Rabies is a fatal viral disease and can often be transmitted from one species to another. Rabies in kudu and possible evidence of the existence of natural immunity in the animals requires a great deal of research. More information about the epidemic, as well as the development of a practical method to vaccinate kudu against rabies has started to be researched through the Kudu Rabies research project.

The project started in June 2015 and is well on track. The purpose is to gain knowledge into the epidemiology, as well as the development of a practical method to vaccinate kudu against rabies and ultimately finding a way to control rabies in the kudu population.

After an adaptation period for the kudu, the research kick-started with animal handling activities to collect blood samples, ear tagging for identification, deworming and administration of an oral vaccine to a number of captive kudus. This first step will provide the basic and essential information required to do further research.

The trial of administering the vaccines measures the vaccine’s effectiveness and establishes to what extent it will protect kudus against rabies infection. The second part of the trial aims to prove that horizontal spread of rabies among kudus is possible, in other words that the disease can be transmitted from kudu to kudu by direct contact. The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a method to control kudu rabies.

Dr Rainer Hassel says that traditionally, rabies is considered a disease affecting mainly carnivores and is transmitted to the species through direct contact, such as licking or saliva. However, in domestic animals and human rabies, infections can be prevented through vaccination.

But, vaccination of free roaming wildlife using the traditional vaccine requires the use of helicopters and darting, making vaccination a very costly exercise, with a high likelihood of missing individual animals. It is for this reason that research is needed to explore alternative vaccination methods, such as has been successfully achieved in parts of Europe to vaccinate foxes using oral bait.

Dr Adriaan Vos, senior scientist and bait expert of IDT Biologika GmbH, was glad to be part of the first trial. “I don’t know what impressed me more, the facility where the animals are housed or the members of the project team, who are so motivated to find a solution to counter the epidemic kudu rabies.”

Expanding on the threat of the disease, he stressed that, “This disease is not only a threat for this iconic animal species, but also for other wildlife species and livestock in Namibia.”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a rabies epidemic occurred in Namibia within the kudu population, leading scientists to believe that a non-bite oral transmission among kudus was taking place. The first epidemic lasted about ten years, followed by a period of only sporadic cases.

However, the occurrence of rabies in kudus increased again in 1999, but since 2002 has reached epidemic proportions again. This serious disease not only continues to pose a threat to the kudu population, but also threatens to infect commercial livestock. The negative economic and health impact that a rabies outbreak can have on the farming community of Namibia could be considerable.

The Kudu Rabies project was commissioned by the Namibia Agricultural Union and is being implemented by Agra Provision, with support from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the Directorate of Veterinary Services, as well as various donors.