Getting to grips with the Global Burden of Animal Diseases: Q&A with Prof Jonathan Rushton

By Vanessa Meadu

When it comes to tackling animal diseases, it’s surprisingly difficult to know where to prioritise action and what policies work best. Professor Jonathan Rushton tells us about building a new global approach to address the diseases that have the most profound impacts.

Why look at the Global Burden of Animal Diseases?

At the moment, animal diseases are prioritised based on mortality (number of animals that die) and morbidity (the prevalence of disease in an animal population), yet the evidence base for this approach is limited. There is also a tendency to focus on diseases that cause trade restrictions. This approach will always focus on the diseases that appear to cause big impacts – ones that kill animals quickly or create immediate trade barriers, and potentially we end up chasing the sparks from the fire. An example of this is foot and mouth disease (FMD), which I started working on in the mid-1990s in Bolivia. After some time, I realised that a lot of our estimates on foot and mouth are based on anecdotes rather than real data. Defining FMD as the most economically important disease in the world is not evidence based.

Similarly, the current list of 117 notifiable (i.e., serious) animal diseases, infections and infestations put out by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), does not include a number of animal diseases that people working in the industry would call endemic, and cause significant losses in production, and require expenditure on surveillance, prevention and control measures. An example of this is coccidiosis in the poultry sector. It’s always present, and while it’s not a transboundary disease, it is very expensive to manage.

We need a system to classify animal diseases by economic impact that includes production losses, expenditure and wider economic impacts. Data are needed on mortality, morbidity, and production changes, plus the human reaction to disease presence or risk. This approach will help us to see what the true priority disease areas are, set policies around them, refine resource use and reduce the environmental impact of the animals we keep.

What are the data challenges?

At the moment, if you take all the published estimates of the economic losses for animal diseases, the sum will be greater than the value of the livestock sector as a whole, which of course is impossible. Publically available data on the actual presence of disease are scanty, and the data on impacts in terms of production loss and reaction are even worse.

We need more systematic data collection, capture and analysis on a range of endemic animal diseases and how they are managed. This will require an understanding of the production systems animals are kept in and how much they are producing, building on the work of the Livestock Data for Development (LD4D) community facilitated by the Supporting Evidenced Based Interventions (SEBI) program. The long-term goal is to create a framework where people capture data on diseases losses and expenditure and to make overall estimates of disease impacts.

Over time we will build longitudinal datasets, that once available can be used to perform econometric analyses on the animal health investments and policies. It will allow us to understand the impacts of policy interventions and making possible true evidence-based decision-making. We will be moving towards the application of science to the animal health systems.

Can the animal health world learn anything from the world of human health, which has classified the Global Burden of Disease?

Since the late 1980s, there has been an ongoing global effort to estimate the human burden of disease, to move beyond a narrow focus on infectious diseases. A small number of analysts supported by WHO and the World Bank started by setting out a framework for a global effort and looking at a limited number of diseases at a regional level. The level of inaccuracy was quite high to start with – they could not explain all deaths with those diseases, but they accepted it. Over three decades, they were able to get more granular, moving down geographic levels, and broadening the number of diseases. Now they can do county-level estimates in some countries and cover diseases, injuries and health issues. The lesson here is that it’s important to just get started based on what is known and accept that you can’t explain everything from the outset. And to have a core set of principles that are the basis for making estimates.

Who needs to get on board to make this movement a success?

We need big organisations working in animal health to join this movement, such as the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Inter American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) in Latin America, the development banks (World Bank and the regional banks) and research organizations like the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and academic partners.

Private sector engagement is absolutely critical. Big companies that deal with livestock have good data about different kinds of animals, diseases, and interventions. But it’s an untapped resource at a public policy level.

National governments will be involved partly through their membership with the OIE. In time, member states could pass a resolution to ensure national governments engage in this process. Some countries like Japan, Australia, Canada and India are already keen to take this forward.

Finally, we need funding. A range of foundations and aid agencies are being contacted and are already taking part in discussions. The coordination process will be enormous and expensive, as will national efforts to collect, aggregate and analyse data, and collect and analyse data from the private sector.

What happens next?

Lots of work is underway to raise awareness of this concept and get the global animal health community on board. In March, we held a workshop in Paris that brought together a number of key players who have or use livestock health data. There was agreement from the experts and the organisations present at the workshop to take the concept of GBADs to a program of activity. We will be publishing a report back from the workshop shortly. We are also planning on submitting a short communication to the Lancet, a White Paper for Preventive Veterinary Medicine, and a paper for the One Health journal.

As well, through building interest and engaging with the community, we are establishing the foundation for the development of a program proposal.

We welcome comments and insights from anybody working in this field. Please get in touch by email or leave a comment below.


Professor Jonathan Rushton is the N8 Agrifood chair in Animal Health and Food Systems Economics and the Director of the University of Liverpool’s Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Food Systems. Written by Vanessa Meadu, Communications and Knowledge Exchange Specialist, Supporting Evidence Based Innovations (SEBI), University of Edinburgh. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Professor Andy Peters (SEBI) participated in the GBADs workshop in March 2018 on behalf of the Livestock Data for Development (LD4D) community.

Featured photo: Goat keepers in Uttar Pradesh, India, engage in a grassroots disease prevention and treatment service. Source: GALVmed.

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