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UCD dairy training aims to boost Rwandans’ health

Rwandan family with cowW

Dairy cows provide a vitally important source of nutrient-rich food for Rwandan families. UC Davis Global HealthShare/Courtesy photo

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From page A1 | June 20, 2014 |

In Rwanda, the expression “have milk” — “gira amata” — is not part of a milk-mustachioed marketing campaign. It’s a wish for prosperity.

And prosperity is what a team of UC Davis scientists hopes to help the small African nation achieve, by improving the health and increasing the productivity of its dairy cows.

Dairying is a centuries-old enterprise in Rwanda, but production levels are quite low, and the milk is often contaminated with bacteria that pose health risks for cows and people.

“The underproduction of milk in Rwanda is heartbreaking,” said professor Ray Rodriguez, executive director of the UCD Global HealthShare Initiative.

Rwandan cows now produce just 5 liters of milk per day. The same cows, when healthy and well cared for, should be producing 25 to 40 liters per day, he said.

UCD’s Global HealthShare Initiative is coordinating the partnership between campus scientists, students and their colleagues in Rwanda. They’re teaching Rwandan veterinarians, veterinary students, university faculty and government officials how to improve the health and productivity of dairy cows and the safety of milk. They’re also teaching these individuals how to provide this training to a nation of smallholder farmers.

Faculty members on the team are Rodriguez and Jim Cullor, a professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine and director of its Dairy Food Safety Laboratory.

They teamed up with Somen Nandi, co-founder and managing director for Global HealthShare and principal investigator for its Rwanda project, and several graduate and undergraduate students.

“It’s about feeding the kids,” Cullor said. “It’s the children of Rwanda who are our customers.”

The project also is a reminder of the international aspect of modern health issues, Rodriguez said.

“All health is now global health; we can’t just look at our health in the U.S. in isolation,” he said.

The team is focusing on mastitis, a bacterial infection of the cow’s udder and the most common dairy cattle disease in the United States. In Rwanda, mastitis reduces milk production, causes milk to be unfit for sale and may result in the cow’s death.

During the past year, the UCD team has provided training to 40 Rwandan veterinary students, university faculty and government officials, teaching them practical techniques for preventing mastitis and identifying the different types of bacteria likely to be found in milk.

The success of the Rwandan program relies upon developing a collaborative partnership with the Rwandan government, and identifying technologies that are appropriate for that country.

For example, sophisticated laboratory tests used in the United States are not economically practical for Rwanda. Instead, the team is training the veterinary professionals and students to prepare petri dishes on which microbial cultures can be grown.

“It’s not low-tech; we call it ‘rural tech,’ ” Cullor said.

When an autoclave for sterilizing the laboratory instruments proved to be prohibitively expensive, a pressure cooker was purchased to serve the same function.

“We don’t come with big money, however, we can make small but important changes,” Nandi said.

The team is passing on the dairy dynamic management techniques, developed through the Dairy Food Safety Laboratory and implemented through the Global HealthShare Rural Tech program. This on-farm training is designed to improve animal health and well-being, ecosystem health, food safety and the economic well-being of Rwandan smallholder farmers.

To make sure that the benefit of the training spreads, the team is training the Rwandan veterinary students so that they can go into local villages and train farmers on how to raise healthier, more productive cows.

Underproduction of safe milk presents a serious human-health dilemma, as well as an economic challenge, for Rwanda.

“We’re trying to emphasize that because the milk is loaded with bacteria, there is a food safety issue,” Rodriguez said. He noted that some bacteria in milk cause intestinal infections in children, and repeated infections leave the child unable to adequately absorb nutrients.

Nearly 60 percent of Rwandan’s live below the poverty line — 40 percent subsisting on less than 90 cents per day, according to the U.S. Aid for International Development. And 44 percent of Rwandan children under the age of 5 suffer from stunting.

“Nutritionists use the term ‘the first 1,000 days’ — that window of time when nutritional interventions can prevent permanent damage to the body,” Rodriguez said.

“And if children are raised on contaminated milk during that time, their cognitive development can be permanently damaged as adults,” Nandi said

There is a particular poignancy for the team to be introducing the dairy program and its promise of health and prosperity to Rwanda during the 20th anniversary of that nation’s tragic 1994 genocide, which resulted in the deaths of more than 800,000 Rwandans.

They were pleasantly surprised to find that Rwanda today is a safe, stable, almost litter-free country, with a strong commitment to civil society and civil obedience.

“The country is safe, and the people are very hopeful,” Rodriguez said. “They want Rwanda to be the gem of Africa.”

The UCD team hopes that, in some small but important way, the dairy program can help achieve that goal.

— UC Davis News

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