ABOUT US

Small ruminant production systems are a major component of the dairy and meat sector in the Mediterranean region, being frequently the only possible enterprises in less favoured areas, unsuitable for growing crops, playing a substantial role in the agro-livelihood of farmers in developing countries. Thus, it is fundamental to ensure sustainability and prevent diseases in grazing sheep systems. Parasites are ubiquitous in such systems and have been identified as the main constraint affecting small ruminants’ production, health and welfare. Among parasitic infections, cystic echinococcosis (CE) is one of the most important production-limiting diseases of grazing sheep in the Mediterranean area, associated to serious animal health, welfare and economic repercussions due to reduced yield and quality of meat, milk and wool, reduced birth rate and delayed performance and growth. CE is caused by the larval stages of the small tapeworm Echinococcus granulosus, a zoonotic Taeniidae of veterinary and public health importance. The life cycle of E. granulosus includes dogs and other canids as the definitive hosts of the adult parasite and livestock (mainly sheep) and humans as intermediate hosts. CE has a worldwide distribution, but it exhibits the highest prevalence in communities where pastoral activities predominate, as the Mediterranean area. Climatic changes (e.g. precipitation, climate warming) may influence the epidemiology of CE, due to their direct effect on the survival of infective eggs, released in the environment by the dog and an indirect impact on sheep, through an increased exposure to the parasite. For these reasons, the ECHINO-SAFE-MED project is aimed to implement the farming systems by delivering innovative and sustainable strategies to control CE in sheep in four countries of the Mediterranean area (Algeria, Greece, Italy and Tunisia).

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Period of Implementation

May 10, 2021 - May 10, 2024
Total Budget

EUR 779,816.00

OUR IMPACT

Goals

The main aim of ECHINO-SAFE-MED is to implement the pasture-based livestock farming systems by delivering sustainable and cost-effective tools, as well as innovative strategies to control cystic echinococcosis (CE) in sheep farms with the final goal to improve health, welfare and productivity of small ruminant livestock sector in the Mediterranean regions. This will be obtained by the use of high throughput diagnostic, surveillance and control strategies in order to establish guidelines for sustainable CE control to be further extended to other endemic Mediterranean areas, thus increasing agro-livelihood, income and satisfaction by farmers in these regions.

Objectives

ECHINO-SAFE-MED will achieve its aims through the following specific objectives (SO): SO 1: to develop and harmonize new tools for the early diagnosis of cystic echinococcosis in sheep based on easy to use in field diagnostic techniques SO 2: to improve CE surveillance in the Mediterranean area using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) SO 3: to perform active surveillance in the selected sheep farms using innovative diagnostic tools SO 4: to assess the use of GPS datalogger to understand the micro-epidemiology of echinococcosis in order to apply strategic control activities SO 5: to validate the use of the EG95 recombinant vaccine for the first time in the selected Mediterranean countries using two different vaccination programs SO 6: to perform control strategies based on the vaccination of lambs and treatment of shepherd dogs SO 7: to implement the treatment of stray canids based on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) SO 8: to strengthen CE surveillance and control through capacity building and training activities SO 9: to disseminate acquired knowledge and skills to decision makers, end-users and local communities SO 10: to translate generated knowledge and tools to the health policy makers to ultimately reach recommendations on CE control in the Mediterranean area

Problems and Needs Analysis

Small ruminant production systems are a major component of the dairy and meat sector in the Mediterranean areas being frequently the only possible enterprises in less favoured areas, unsuitable for growing crops, playing a substantial role in the livelihood of farmers in developing countries. Furthermore, small ruminant farming systems represent one of the most important agricultural activity connected to the utilization of marginal lands, with prevalence of pastoral system, low level of mechanization, and production of typical products, mainly cheese (Caroprese et al., 2015). Ensuring the sustainability of small ruminant livestock farming systems in relation to global concerns about climate change, population dynamics and quality of agrosystem services provided to society, as well as their trade-off is fundamental (Bernuès et al., 2011). Parasites are ubiquitous in such systems and have been identified as the main constraint affecting small ruminants’ production, health and welfare. Grazing sheep are frequently exposed to multiple parasites and the early diagnosis of these infections is of pivotal importance to plan sustainable and low-impact control and treatment strategies (Ruano et al., 2017). Among parasitic infections, cystic echinococcosis (CE) might be considered one of the most important zoonotic diseases of grazing sheep in the Mediterranean area, associated to serious economic and animal health repercussions due to reduced yield and quality of meat, milk and wool, reduced birth rate, delayed performance and growth, as well as post-mortem rejections at slaughtering (Torgerson, 2003). Cystic echinococcosis, caused by the larval stages of the small tapeworm Echinococcus granulosus, is a zoonotic parasitic disease of veterinary and public health importance. The life cycle of E. granulosus includes dogs and other canids as the definitive hosts of the adult parasite and livestock (mainly sheep) and humans as intermediate hosts. CE has a worldwide distribution but exhibits the highest prevalence in communities where pastoral activities predominate, as the Mediterranean areas (Deplazes et al., 2017). Climatic changes (e.g. global warming) may influence the epidemiology of CE, due to their direct effect on the survival and the viability or infectivity of eggs, released in the environment by the dog, and an indirect impact on sheep, through an increased exposure to the parasite (Atkinson et al., 2013). Changes in soil moisture/humidity may increase the number of viable eggs in the environment, thereby amplifying infection pressure in susceptible intermediate hosts. Furthermore, climate changes will contribute to the transmission of echinococcosis mediated by changes in animal population dynamics due to improvements in quality and abundance of vegetation (Atkinson et al., 2013). Therefore, these changes will have a direct and indirect impact on parasites, hosts and farm management practices and, also implications for animal health and welfare (Skuce et al., 2013). High prevalence of CE occurs predominantly in the Mediterranean countries with large number of grazing sheep. In southern Europe, epidemiological surveys conducted in different regions of central-southern Italy showed high values of prevalence up to 75% in sheep and 6% in dogs (Deplazes et al., 2017) whereas, in Greece, the overall prevalence in sheep is 30.4-53.8% (Christodoulopoulos et al., 2008; Chaligiannis et al., 2015) and 50.4% in sheepdogs (Sotiraki et al., 2003). The same parasitological scenario is present in North Africa, where the prevalence of E. granulosus infections in Algeria ranges from 17.5% to 78.0% in sheep (Hamrat et al., 2011; Ouchene et al., 2014) and from 15.5% to 42.0% in dogs (Bentounsi et al., 2009). Similarly, in Tunisia, CE prevalence ranges from 12.5 to 53.0% in sheep (Lahmar et al., 1999, 2007, 2013) and is reported above 20% in dogs (Deplazes et al., 2017). From a control perspective the main target for intervention is the definitive host (dogs) with the aim to reduce or eliminate adult worm burdens. The anticestode drug praziquantel (PZQ) provides an excellent cestocidal deworming tool for dogs. Targeting livestock to prevent infection (anti-oncosphere vaccination) could also be effective especially in conjunction with slaughter inspection (liver/lungs condemnation) and husbandry practices that reduce numbers of older sheep (have the greatest viable metacestode burden). Simulation models for combined deworming of dogs and vaccination of sheep have indicated an improved efficacy (Craig et al., 2017). Historically most of the studies conducted on epidemiology and control of CE in the Mediterranean area, however, have been performed separately targeting either humans or specific animal species, with scarce or no input in between. Thus, many results obtained, and tools created remained isolated within each country, instead of incorporating them, increasing so the efficiency of CE control programmes. Consequently, despite such control initiatives that have been implemented in selected countries or regions (Craig et al., 2015), CE still remains a problem in the Mediterranean areas with a high rate of infection. Crucial for an effective control program is also to obtain an accurate measure of infection rates of CE in a selected area, in order to design and launch active and passive surveillance systems and to observe and quantify the progress of the control program. Thus, advances in knowledge and development of new control tools for CE including new diagnostics for the definitive and intermediate hosts provide an excellent prospect for improved control program. Unfortunately, according to DISCONTOOLS (https://www.discontools.eu/), many critical gaps have been identified in commercial diagnostic kits available worldwide. These could be summarized as follows: (i) Definitive hosts: lack in specificity of coproantigen detection, expensive copro-DNA isolation, more specific monoclonal antibodies needed; (ii) Intermediate hosts: lack of sensitivity and specificity of antibody detection, specific antigen detection should be developed. To date, advances in diagnosis of echinococcosis in definitive hosts have been made (coproELISA, coproPCR) resulting in a huge impact in epidemiological studies and in surveillance of control (Craig et al., 2015). Unfortunately, relatively little research has been directed towards the development of new tools for the in vivo diagnosis of CE in sheep, where diagnosis at post-mortem still remains the most reliable option. One of the disadvantages of this method is the limitation in detecting growing cysts in young animals, which are the ones of greatest interest for surveillance in a control program. The availability of new tools for the early diagnosis of CE would greatly improve surveillance in livestock, unfortunately, serological tests can give crossreactions in animals infected with other taeniid cestodes (including Taenia hydatigena or Taenia ovis) and, therefore, have poor diagnostic value at the individual level (Craig et al., 2017). Instead, ultrasonography has been used with good specificity and sensibility values, but, actually, it can be performed only in the liver (https://www.discontools.eu/). As a consequence, control programs, which are mainly based on surveillance of livestock, surveillance and treatment of shepherd dogs appear to be late to carry out (Lembo et al., 2013).

Intervention Strategy(ies)

Unmatched expertise in the ECHINO-SAFE-MED consortium offers a unique opportunity to improve the general understanding, preparedness and synergistic control of CE. ECHINO-SAFE-MED participants is unique in addressing for the first time CE from the holistic “One Health” point of view. Its innovation lays in the cross-discipline and cross-country boundaries approach for the harmonisation and improvement of diagnostic tools and control approaches, utilising modern geospatial techniques to monitor the epidemiology of CE in the study area and beyond. Our project aims to translate generated knowledge and tools to the health policy makers to ultimately reach policy recommendations on CE control in the Mediterranean area. In this view, ECHINO-SAFE-MED aims to implement the farming systems by delivering sustainable tools and innovative strategies to control CE in sheep farms in four countries of the Mediterranean area (Algeria, Greece, Italy and Tunisia) with the final goal to improve the pasture-based farming systems and consequently improve income and satisfaction by the farmers in these areas. Re-designing diagnostic tools and control strategies will increase the resilience of Mediterranean farming systems to increased disease risks arising from global change and will produce yield stability and quality in comparison to standard control approaches under challenging environmental conditions. The objectives of this project will be achieved through the construction of an international network for sharing practices, methods and data to promote in concerted and organized way, efficient approaches to help animals and farming systems to adapt to climate change. Standard operating procedures to improve the diagnosis as well as the safety of the laboratory staff will be developed, harmonized and applied on farms and in the hub laboratories of the ECHINO-SAFE-MED countries together with innovative control strategies in order to define the best approach to support control programs for CE and extend it to the other endemic Mediterranean areas. Finally, in perspective of the “One Health” concept, ECHINO-SAFE-MED activities will also have an impact of CE on human health, reducing the burden of human disease in the Mediterranean area.

Impact Pathway

ECHINO-SAFE-MED will improve sustainability of small ruminant production systems in the Mediterranean area. Parasitic infections of small ruminants are a major constraint on efficient production and thus, the development of innovative diagnostic tools and control approaches for CE will improve the productivity of the livestock farming in these areas and will contribute to yield stability and quality in comparison to standard farming systems under challenging environmental and health conditions. ECHINO-SAFE-MED will go beyond the current state-of-the-art in the current study of CE, to develop and test an integrated, model-based surveillance for early detection of CE and intervention assessment in different countries of the Mediterranean area, which in combination with our significant training and capacity component is envisioned to be developed into more permanent, sustainable control system. ECHINO-SAFE-MED will develop and share novel diagnostic solutions, control approaches and know-how across partners. This is expected to result in harmonization of diagnostic protocols, and a sustainable parasite control approach that will be further shared, implemented and improved across partners and as such will underpin activities and further diagnostic developments by different partners. In addition, each partner will have access to specific diagnostic and surveillance tools developed by the other partners. ECHINO-SAFE-MED, beyond improving control of CE in Mediterranean areas, will serve as a framework for future surveillance strategies in all endemic countries. Finally, in perspective of the “One Health” concept, ECHINO-SAFEMED activities will also have an impact of CE on human health, reducing the burden of human disease in the Mediterranean area.

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