Award for feeding Africa's hungry a feather in vet's cap

Robyn Alders always saw chooks, plenty of chooks, scratching the dirt of villages in southern Africa – scrawny feathered companions to groups of badly malnourished children playing nearby.

"Why weren't people eating them?" she wondered.

A trained vet from Sydney who had just moved to Zambia with an interest in foreign aid, Alders knew eggs or chicken meat to be a wonderful source of nutrients to keep children healthy.

This was the late 1980s and what she discovered would lead her on a remarkable effort over more than two decades to inoculate as many as 20 million chickens against a debilitating disease.

Because if you think finding hen's teeth is rare, imagine carefully dropping a vaccine in a chook's eye.

Alders was honoured this week at a ceremony in Canberra with the first Mitchell Humanitarian Award, sponsored by businessman Harold Mitchell, to recognise outstanding contributions to the cause of international development.

Alders' work to combat Newcastle disease – a highly contagious and fatal virus that devastates domestic chickens – has led her across Africa and south-east Asia.

The villagers in Zambia were losing entire flocks to the disease at least twice a year and so hoarded the eggs against the next outbreak or sold live birds for petty cash.

It was a pattern repeated in poor countries across the world.

Outbreaks of Newcastle disease have been rare in Australia – the virus is named for an outbreak in Newcastle on Tyne, England, in the 1920s. But Alders knew of a vaccine developed by researchers in Brisbane, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, known as the "V4 strain" that had the advantage of being cheap and thermo-tolerant.

"You don't have to keep it in the fridge, basically," she said – an enormous advantage in hot climates of Africa and Asia and places where electricity supplies are unreliable.

But delivery was still a challenge and finding a sustainable method to keep the vaccinations current, where a dose of one bird, one drop is needed every four months.

Over a decade of work in Mozambique – regularly ranked the poorest nation on earth – Alders developed an education package to train local villagers to administer the vaccine, eventually winning backing from Australia's official aid program for the vaccine, that costs 5-10¢ each dose.

"The farmers knew they had to contribute because local governments never had enough money," she said.

And sure enough, as flocks started to survive, villagers began to feel confident enough to eat the eggs and even slaughter the occasional chicken.

The program has now been employed in several other poor countries, including Tanzania, Malawi and East Timor.

"It takes time. It took us 10 years to show a sustainable program," Alders said. A fresh investigation is underway through the University of Sydney for the next five years to monitor the nutritional health for women and children in Tanzania and Zambia.

Alders, for her part, has returned home to Australia, concerned about the pressure facing local farmers in a country beset by the opposite heath crisis – skyrocketing rates of obesity.

High income nations should be setting a good example, she said, not bingeing on processed foods.

"My little motto is farmers grow the best medicine," Alders says. "Healthy and nutritious food."

The story Award for feeding Africa's hungry a feather in vet's cap first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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