Working in Ghana to 'Round Up' Cattle Diseases
Perhaps Dr. Dalen Agnew, Assistant Professor in MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine, never imagined that mentoring a graduate student would take him halfway around the world, open up new career endeavors, and establish friendships that will last a lifetime. But this is the happy result of his collaboration with MSU graduate student, Dr. Benjamin AduAddai, on a research project in Ghana, Africa, where they have diagnosed important reproductive diseases in cattle.
Agnew, himself an MSU graduate, originally wanted to become a "Cold War" diplomat. But after two years pursuing a degree in Russian Studies, he realized he didn't want to "spend the rest of my life behind a desk." So he came to MSU to study veterinary medicine, and then worked as head veterinarian for about ten years at the Detroit Zoo.
When he came back to MSU in 2006 to work in the Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health, he met Benjamin AduAddai, a Ghanaian who, interestingly, also speaks Russian, and who needed a graduate mentor. AduAddai's home institution, the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research, in Accra, Ghana, had tasked him to go to the U.S. to get his Ph.D., and then return home to develop a pathology services group at Noguchi.
Creating an International Research Project and Partnership
Agnew and AduAddai quickly became friends, and began working together on lab-related projects. They soon realized the importance of gaining fieldwork experience as well. Since AduAddai had a desire to re-establish hometown connections (especially with his wife and newborn son), it seemed logical to design a research project in Apolonia, a rural village outside of Accra, where they could research reproductive diseases of cattle.
Besides working with the Noguchi Institute, Agnew and AduAddai also worked with the Ghanaian Veterinary Services Department of the Agriculture Ministry, which provided personnel and gave approval to the project, enabling them to gain access to a herd of more than 700 cattle.
"In Ghana," Agnew explains, "there may be 15-20 cattle owners who own the cattle in a large herd, but they turn over the management to the 'Fulani,' a tribe of cattle-herders who are paid by owners to manage their herds." These extremely skilled husbandrists were helpful to Agnew and AduAddai, quickly restraining the cattle in advance of their testing procedures.
Their testing resulted in finding reproductive diseases that are also present in U.S. cattle, especially infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, and trichomoniasis. Dr. Phyllis Addo, who heads the department at the Noguchi Institute and provided training and logistical support to the project, notes that "the outcome of this study has helped to identify important reproductive pathogens in Ghanaian cattle which limit their development."
Economic Realities of Animal Reproductive Diseases
This kind of research has a profound financial impact in countries such as Ghana, where a large part of the economy is dependent on agriculture, especially beef exports. Anything that limits animal reproduction also limits the ability of local economies to be self-sufficient.
"Another aspect that frequently goes unappreciated is the environmental impact," says Agnew. For example, cattle would ordinarily produce offspring each year. But the presence of reproductive diseases might reduce the rate to every three years. As Agnew explains it, "If the cattle are eating grass and using environmental resources each year without reproducing, it can have a negative environmental impact."
Agnew is currently looking for funding to go back to Ghana to "fill in the gaps." As he explains it, "We only looked at one herd. And we know that disease is present in that herd, but how prevalent is it? We would like to be able to go back to look at more [herds]."
In the meantime, work is continuing on the project. Benjamin AduAddai is using the results in his dissertation and is happy with the outcomes so far. He says, "We had all the needed cooperation for this work and I can say that we are very happy with the findings. Most of these diseases had not been studied in Ghana [before]..." He hopes this study will lead to future, related research. "The methodology in this study will be useful for future researchers as well as the data serving as a spring board to them. On the whole I am encouraged with this."
Back at Noguchi, Dr. Phyllis Addo also expects that this work will continue to have a positive impact. "The result of this work is expected to be relevant to [the] needs of animal agriculture in Ghana. It is important reproductive information for farmers, veterinarians and other health related professionals, to help in diseases management."
Agnew believes that forming a global understanding is becoming increasingly necessary and is grateful for the opportunity he's had to work with AduAddai and his partners in Ghana. "If Ben and I had not linked up early in my career, I don't know if I would be involved in global projects," he says. Now that Agnew is involved globally, he has a desire to continue indefinitely. "There are lots of wonderful opportunities to collaborate on projects, especially as they relate to human diseases. I don't see an end to my research. In 30 years, I hope to still be going back to Ghana."