Virologist joins international effort to eradicate deadly animal disease

PPR threatens billions of livestock animals, including goats. Photo Credit: World Organisation for Animal Health.
PPR threatens billions of livestock animals, including goats. Photo Credit: World Organisation for Animal Health.

Peste des petits ruminants (PPR) is a highly contagious viral disease that affects small ruminants. The disease has a severe rate of morbidity and mortality for many domestic and wild animals, including sheep, goats, deer and antelope. The virus is found primarily in Africa, the Middle East and Asia and has most recently been detected in Southern Europe. While humans face no danger from the virus, 80 percent of the world’s goat and sheep live in parts of the world where they are at risk of contracting the disease and where the livelihoods of an estimated 900 million people rely upon these animals.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) embarked on a joint mission five years ago to eradicate PPR by 2030. A research partnership originating in the University of Connecticut Department of Pathobiology and Veterinary Science (PVS) is now poised to join this global fight.

Georgia and Armenia share a southern and eastern border, respectively, with Turkey. Photo credit: Google Maps.
Georgia and Armenia share a southern and eastern border, respectively, with Turkey. Photo credit: Google Maps.

Guillermo Risatti, an associate professor in PVS, is coordinating an international research team with the support of a $1.6 million grant award from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), an agency within the United States Department of Defense (DoD), to detect and monitor PPR in Armenia and Georgia. The two-year biosurveillance project aims at aligning their activities with the FAO and OIE joint strategy to combat the disease.

“This disease is widespread,” says Risatti. “It has affected many sheep and goats, which are an important source of food and an economic resource, especially for the poor, in these regions of the world. The FAO and OIE are invested in efforts in eradicating the disease. There is agreement that this virus is a serious problem.”

While PPR is not present in the US, it could be introduced, either by accident or intentionally. There is also apprehension about the potential for destabilizing effects in regions where two billion livestock are at risk of infection.

“Historically, the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] is the organization that supports animal disease and research. However, the DoD supports research aimed at reducing biothreats, as it is the case of PPR in this region of the world,” says Risatti.

The meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia included, from left to right, Dr. Mikheil Sokhadze of the FAO, Dr. Tigran Markosyan, Dr. Natia Kartskhia of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture of the Republic of Georgia, Dr. Guillermo Risatti, Dr. Karl Stahl, Dr. Erika Chenais, and Dr. Nino Vepkhvadze.
The meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia included, from left to right, Dr. Mikheil Sokhadze, Dr. Tigran Markosyan, Dr. Natia Kartskhia, Dr. Guillermo Risatti, Dr. Karl Stahl, Dr. Erika Chenais and Dr. Nino Vepkhvadze.

Risatti recruited colleagues abroad with whom he has previously worked during his career as a molecular virologist. His partners for the PPR project include a team led by Dr. Tigran Markosyan of the Ministry of Agriculture in Armenia, a team led by Dr. Nino Vepkhvadze of the Laboratory of the Ministry of Agriculture in Georgia and Dr. Erika Chenais and Dr. Karl Ståhl of the National Veterinary Institute in Sweden.

UConn is receiving funding from the DTRA award for their part of the PPR study, a portion of which will support a graduate student to work on the project. Risatti says a search is underway to fill the position.

The research group met earlier this month in Tbilisi, Georgia, with Dr. Mikheil Sokhadze of the FAO and Dr. Natia Kartskhia of the National Food Agency of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture of Georgia to coordinate their work with the global eradication initiative led by the FAO and OIE.

“We want to frame our project with the FAO and OIE with a plan for surveilling the disease in this part of the world. There is a lot of territory to cover in order to eradicate this disease and Armenia and Georgia have borders where people and animals are moving across them constantly. We want to see where the disease is, which areas are more vulnerable and learn if there is a single or multiple viruses circulating,” says Risatti.

PPR spreads easily between animals in close contact. The virus is shed through tears, nasal discharge, droplets from coughing and sneezing and excrement. The disease can quickly make its way into water, bedding and feeding troughs that animals share. While the virus cannot survive outside a host for long, it can be swiftly transmitted amongst animals. The disease’s signs are similar to those caused by other animal viruses, including foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue, so differential diagnostic testing is necessary to confirm the presence of the virus.

The Swedish researchers will complete the epidemiology portion of the study, including tracking population density and the distribution of the disease and identifying high-risk areas such as popular trade routes, markets and slaughterhouses. Risatti will be conducting field studies with the teams from Armenia and Georgia in the Caucasus region, consisting in acquiring and testing samples.

Risatti is optimistic about the contributions that the assembled research team will make to the effort of eradicating PPR and the prospects for eliminating similar viruses.

“The closest virus that PPR is related to is rinderpest,” says Risatti. “That disease was eradicated from the world and with the correct tools and correct approach, we can eradicate this one too. It’s also very close to the measles virus and distemper virus that affects pets, particularly dogs. Being able to work to support these types of studies is exciting. I’ve always been engaged in studying foreign animal diseases and these international projects are an excellent opportunity to do so.”

By Jason M. Sheldon