Sunday, April 1, 2012

Food Security: Project Set To Tackle Parasitic Worm Infections In Livestock

Parasitic worms wreak havoc among farm animals, and various changing environmental factors are only exacerbating the problem. Step in a brand new EU-funded project that aims to mitigate the economic and welfare burden these worm infections put on the European ruminant livestock industry, by examining the impact these environmental changes are having on the pesky pathogens.

Illustration of this article  

GLOWORM ('Innovative and sustainable strategies to mitigate the impact of global change on helminth infections in ruminants'), which received nearly EUR 3 million as part of the 'Food, agriculture and fisheries, and biotechnology' Theme of the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), brings together researchers from 14 partner institutions across Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Following a successful kick-off meeting in Berlin at the end of February, researchers are getting to work on developing innovative and sustainable strategies to counteract the recent spike in the numbers of highly pathogenic parasitic worms, or helminths, inflicting serious economic damage on the EU ruminant farming industry. Subclinical infections cause production losses that affect the production of meat, milk and the value of fibre, fleece/hide and skin products.

Ruminants are animals with a four-compartment stomach, such as cattle and sheep; they regurgitate partially digested food from the first stomach compartment back into their mouth for a second chewing, a process known to farmers as 'chewing the cud'. Worms are omnipresent pathogens present on every animal farm, and animals grazing in fields are particularly at risk from worm infection. Most worms have a development stage that occurs outside the animal host, and as a result, they are sensitive to any changing environmental factors: disease epidemics, seasonality and geographic distribution of parasitic worm infections - all changes that are attributed to climate change.

These effects, coupled with the impact of other environmental changes such as land use and intensification and altered management practices, have only increased the number of parasitic worm infections. The spike in worm infections is also in part due to increasing parasite resistance to drugs, meaning current control programmes are costly and unsustainable in the long term.

The aim of GLOWORM is to obtain a detailed understanding of how all these factors contribute to worm infections: the researchers will design improved innovative diagnostic tests to enhance surveillance of infection levels in Europe. They will also work on EU-wide modelling of infection risk with the aim of both supplying farmers with improved, up-to-date information on changing patterns of infection, and translating this information into practical new worm-control strategies, which will be tested on farms.

The GLOWORM researchers warn that if nothing is done about these increasing levels of parasitic worm infections, European farmers will be ill-equipped to deal with the problem. Senior Lecturer and European Veterinary Specialist in Parasitology Dr Theo de Waal from University College Dublin in Ireland, one of the project partners, comments: 'Wormer resistance is a real problem for European farmers and is threatening their livelihood. This project will provide farmers with up-to-date information and also bring forward new strategies to control parasitic worms in cattle and sheep that will be both realistic and sustainable in the long-term.'

The GLOWORM project builds on work carried out as part of two previous projects funded in part by the EU under the 'Food quality and safety' Thematic area of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6): PARASOL ('Novel solutions for the sustainable control of nematodes in ruminants') which received nearly EUR 3 million of funding; and DELIVER ('Design of effective and sustainable control strategies for liver fluke in Europe'), funded to the tune of more than EUR 3.5 million. GLOWORM researchers will also work closely with researchers on another FP7 'Food, agriculture and fisheries, and biotechnology' project, titled DISCONTOOLS ('Development of the most effective tools to control infectious diseases in animals'), which was boosted by almost EUR 1 million of EU funding.

Dr Theo de Waal highlighted the importance of EU funding to the project: 'The challenges of improved food security demand that we collaborate internationally to solve problems and deliver solutions - without financial support this would not be possible. Through FP7 funding we are provided the opportunity to set up consortia of experts to meet these challenges.'

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