Leading the fight against hunger in Africa

(Edmonton) Livestock diseases prove devastating to the livelihood of people in sub-Saharan Africa, and now a leading University of Alberta researcher, Lorne Babiuk, is heading up efforts to find problem-solving vaccines.

Babiuk, who is the U of A’s vice-president of research, and his team are sharing a $3.1-million federal grant with scientists in South Africa to develop an inexpensive, heat-resistant vaccine that will protect cattle, sheep and goats from five major infectious diseases. A second vaccine to combat a highly contagious disease, African swine fever, is also being developed.

The project is one of six across the country announced by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Canadian International Development Agency. The research is being carried out under the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund (CIFSRF), a $62-million, five-year initiative that teams researchers from developing countries with scientists from several Canadian universities, including the U of A, to find solutions to hunger and food insecurity in the developing world.

"Canada is a world leader in the fight against hunger, and our partnership with IDRC plays a strong part in our efforts. Food and nutrition security remains a key priority of our government's development assistance,” said Bev Oda, minister of international cooperation, in making the announcement. “Our contribution to CIFSRF demonstrates Canadian leadership in assisting developing countries fight hunger through innovative practices and supports private-sector growth in agriculture."

"The vaccines will increase the availability of food, make production more reliable, and improve farmers’ livelihoods,” added IDRC president David Malone. “In keeping with IDRC’s commitment to practical research for development with the widest application possible, I am pleased that this novel vaccine delivery technology may be applied to other diseases as well.”

Finding vaccines to keep livestock protected against infectious diseases is vital for food security in Africa, particularly at a community level, Babiuk said.

“This grant will support the development of a number of vaccines that may improve the economic potential of many livestock keepers, particularly women who rely heavily on small animals for their family livelihood.”

Babiuk—who recently received the prestigious Gairdner Award for his work in vaccine research— and his fellow researchers will collaborate on developing a thermally stable, single-dose vaccine to protect against infectious diseases such as fevers, lumpy skin disease, sheep pox and goat pox. The group is working to create a vaccine that will be inexpensive, easily stored and easily transported, to address existing barriers in isolated rural areas of cost, availability, delivery and need for refrigeration.

The U of A and research teams will work with various South African government departments and rural farmers to field-test new vaccines, and educate the farmers on their use. It is hoped that the vaccines developed will be in widespread use throughout Africa within three to eight years of the end of the project.