Transmission of zoonotic diseases by dogs can be a threat to Public Health in Africa
Cat and Dog Ownership in Africa

Zoonotic Diseases: A Map for Public Health

The role of dogs and cats in Africa is evolving. While free-roaming, community-owned animals are still a common sight, there is a growing trend towards dogs and cats being considered companion pets. The challenge is to make certain that these dogs and cats – and their owners – stay healthy, particularly by preventing the transmission of zoonotic diseases. There is an urgent need to advance veterinary care and address the knowledge gap about these shared infectious diseases, in the interest of the health and well-being of both animals and people in Africa.

In Accra, Ghana, Dr. Sherry Johnson is a veterinarian and lecturer in veterinary medicine – and a dog owner. She and her family know first-hand the joy that companion pets like dogs and cats can bring. “Our pets really are a part of our family,” she says, with clear affection in her voice. But Dr. Johnson is deeply aware that as the number of dogs and cats living in close proximity with people as companion animals rises across Africa, there are challenges in keeping these animals, and their owners, healthy and safe from shared infectious diseases. And although there is growing recognition of the importance of responsible pet ownership and animal well-being, there is still some way to go.

 Credit: Dr. Sherry Johnson, Bayer AG



As the role of dogs and cats in Africa evolves, veterinarians play an important part in keeping these companion animals, and their owners, healthy and safe from shared infectious diseases. 

“Prevention of canine rabies is one focus for pet owners, one that many of them are heeding. But there are other less recognized diseases that pet owners should be mindful of,” Dr. Johnson adds. “And so should veterinary professionals and the wider medical community.”

AFSCAN is led by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association Foundation,
which represents more than 200,000 veterinarians globally. [1] [2]


Zoonotic Diseases in Africa

Professionals like Dr. Johnson recognize that much more needs to be understood about zoonotic disease transmission in Africa. As the continent’s urban and rural populations grow, and ownership of dogs and cats increases, the risk of some of the infectious diseases affecting both people and animals has intensified. Some of these companion vector-borne diseases, including ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis and babesiosis, which are spread through the bite of a vector such as a tick or flea, are zoonotic, meaning they can also spread from animals to humans. In addition to external parasites like fleas, ticks or lice and the vector-borne pathogens they transmit, internal parasites including gastrointestinal helminths like roundworm or tapeworm pose a risk to both the animal affected and humans, especially children. In this way, animal health impacts public health, and the solution to disease prevention lies in a ‘One Health’ approach to management of parasites and vectors.

Overall, there is a gap in knowledge among veterinarians about the diseases and the pathogens being transmitted to both people and animals by parasites such as ticks, fleas or mosquitoes, and their prevalence across Africa.  Dr. Johnson explains, “Small animal veterinarians in Africa sometimes have more difficulty in accessing proper training and education, tools and resources to prevent and treat vector-borne diseases.”

Educating the public and setting up clear guidelines for pet owners can help: Dr. Johnson explains that pet owners in Ghana can receive stiff fines should their unvaccinated pets become infected and bite someone, resulting in the spread of rabies. Still, there is a way to go before even the most well-meaning pet owners fully understand the risks of unvaccinated animals to public health. “Just recently we lost a five-year-old boy to rabies, after a bite from a rabid puppy,” Dr. Johnson notes. “His parents didn’t know about the risks associated with an unvaccinated pet and zoonotic diseases.” Situations like this cause an additional concern for Dr. Johnson: Rabies is a better-known zoonotic disease, but it is still regarded by WHO as a neglected tropical disease; if even rabies is still inconsistently understood, it emphasizes the risks of the spread of other zoonotic diseases.


About Companion Vector-Borne Diseases
Companion vector-borne diseases (CVBDs) are an international public health threat that is receiving growing attention. These diseases are transmitted by blood-feeding ectoparasites, including ticks (e.g. Lyme disease, babesiosis, anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis), fleas (e.g. canine bartonellosis and feline rickettsiosis) and sandflies (leishmaniosis). Some of these infections are zoonotic, which is why veterinarians and public health professionals around the world should emphasize effective parasite protection as a means to mitigate this risk.

 Credit: Bayer AG



Knowledge is key: Raising awareness about zoonotic diseases in the community is crucial for its prevention.

 Credit: Dr. Sherry Johnson, Bayer AG



Dr. Sherry Johnson, Veterinarian and Professor of Veterinary Medicine; member of the African Small Companion Animal Network.

 Prof. Dr. Michael Day, Bayer AG



“There is clearly a lack of knowledge, not only about pet-related zoonoses, but about the simple aspects of responsible pet ownership and safe interactions with companion dogs.”
Emeritus Professor Dr. Michael Day, AFSCAN project lead


Cooperating to Improve the Health of Animals in Africa

Dr. Johnson is part of the African Small Companion Animal Network (AFSCAN), a global initiative of the charitable foundation of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA). As part of its efforts to broaden both public and scientific knowledge about zoonotic diseases in Africa, AFSCAN is running an infectious disease surveillance project throughout 2019. This AFSCAN surveillance project, which is supported by the Animal Health business unit of Bayer, involves the collection of data on the prevalence and distribution of external parasites and vector-borne infectious diseases of dogs and cats across six sub-Saharan African countries: Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Namibia, Tanzania and Uganda. Veterinary parasitologists from each country will collect ticks and fleas, as well as blood samples, from 100 dogs and 50 cats from both urban and rural locations, which will be checked for relevant vector-borne pathogens using cutting-edge molecular diagnostic techniques.

Emeritus Professor Michael J. Day, who is project lead and a member of the AFSCAN Management Board and WSAVA Executive Board, explains that the current project is just one element of AFSCAN. “Our AFSCAN program is now in its fifth year and has been highly successful in its goal of facilitating capacity building in the African veterinary community to enhance quality in small companion animal medicine with a One Health perspective.” The project also complements the work of the WSAVA One Health committee, which has published on zoonotic infectious diseases of dogs and cats.

Fleas and ticks that are known vectors of diseases for pets and their owners throughout the world are also prevalent in Africa. However, not enough is known about the species that are specific to Africa, and the importance of parasite protection for pets is underappreciated, explains Dr. Johnson, either due to awareness or to cost. “We need much more information – a map, really – of what diseases are here and how they are developing. Only with solid scientific data can we then make recommendations for parasite prevention in a veterinary practice.”


Protecting cats from parasites is an important health measureCredit: Bayer AG

Since the importance of parasite protection for pets is still underappreciated in Africa, public education and clear guidelines are important health measures.


About African Small Companion Animal Network (AFSCAN)
The WSAVA Foundation’s AFSCAN initiative is working to advance standards of veterinary care across Africa through education and through facilitating the creation of a sustainable network of companion animal veterinarians, associations and specialist groups in sub-Saharan Africa.


Identifying Challenges to Eliminate Zoonotic Diseases

According to Emeritus Professor Day, the reasons why even a vaccine-preventable infectious disease like rabies is still so prevalent in Africa are a complex weave of socioeconomic and political factors. “Wonderful work is conducted by nongovernmental organizations in Africa who perform mass canine vaccination campaigns. But we have a long way to go before being able to reach the 2030 global target for elimination of dog-associated rabies,” he adds. For this reason, WSAVA is linked closely with the UK-based charity, Mission Rabies, which works in Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana, as well as in several Asian countries. 

More specifically, AFSCAN works to advance standards of veterinary care across Africa through continuing education and facilitating the development of a network of companion animal veterinarians, associations and specialist groups in sub- Saharan Africa. Where the AFSCAN surveillance project comes in is to contribute to development of an infrastructure for companion animal clinical research. Professor Day describes this as the most ambitious of the WSAVA Foundation’s activities. “The AFSCAN project addresses a very fundamental need because at present, apart from some isolated national reports, there is little baseline knowledge about which vector-borne, and potentially zoonotic, infections occur in dogs and cats across the region. We aim to provide, for the first time, a regional surveillance perspective for these diseases and their tick and flea vectors in our six participating countries.”

The aim is that such knowledge will help to define the scope of the problem and consequently inform as to where future intervention might be required to mitigate particular diseases in the African communities. He adds, “Improving the health of companion animals has benefit for African society per se, particularly where dogs may have a working role, but it will also clearly impact on control of transmission of zoonotic diseases.” Overall, the AFSCAN project will add a crucial missing piece of information, Professor Day continues: “This project will provide disease distribution maps, helping veterinarians to manage the control and prevention of these infections they deal with on a daily basis within their veterinary practice.”


Rabies is a zoonotic disease caused by the rabies virus which is transmitted via the saliva of an infected animal.
Dogs are the main source of 99 percent of rabies cases; children under the age of 15 make up at least 40 percent of those bitten. In Africa, dog-mediated rabies causes an estimated 21,476 deaths each year. Rural communities are especially affected due to a lack of awareness and limited access to post-exposure treatment.



The project team behind AFSCANCredit: Bayer AG

Committed to broaden public and scientific knowledge about zoonotic diseases in Africa – the project team behind the AFSCAN surveillance project: Professor Samuel Githigia (Kenya), Dr. Jahashi Nzalawahe (Tanzania), Dr. Sherry Johnson (Ghana), Emeritus Professor Michael J. Day (UK, Project Leader), Dr. Foluke Adedayo Akande (Nigeria), Dr. Ortwin Aschenborn (Namibia) and Dr. Tayebwa Dickson (Uganda).


Markus EdinglohCredit: Bayer AG

“The AFSCAN project will help all of us in the veterinary community to know which diseases occur in these regions and even determine whether there are as yet unknown parasites around that may pose a potential threat to public health. We can then focus on finding better ways to protect animal, and subsequently human, health.
Dr. Markus Edingloh Head of Global Veterinary Scientific Affairs with Animal Health at Bayer 

Gaining Knowledge, Changing Lives

One of the key components of WSAVA’s One Health-directed programs that work towards alleviation of the burden of zoonotic infectious diseases in Africa (and elsewhere) is public education. “There is clearly a lack of knowledge, not only about pet-related zoonoses, but about the simple aspects of responsible pet ownership and safe interactions with companion dogs,” says Professor Day. “Programs that undertake preventive healthcare in dog populations and provide education to the pet-owning community are part of the solution,” he adds.

In the African nations, education about a disease as significant as canine rabies is still a necessity, Dr. Johnson says. “We start there. And then we need to keep going. We are training more veterinarians. Everything is changing rapidly. And we are making people in our communities aware of other pet-associated zoonoses.” She pauses. “Responsible pet ownership is my passion. When I began my career, I used to get frustrated over the lack of information and education.”

Dr. Johnson, however, never gave up. “I see growing appreciation of the role of veterinarians. I take pride in constantly evolving education among the veterinary profession and the benefits this has for people and society. The young vets coming in are deeply interested in companion animals and in engaging more with pet owners,” she adds. “We want people to be happy to see pets, not to hate to see a dog on the street, for example, because they lost a loved one. These companion animals are a source of joy. They should not be a source of heartbreak.” Dr. Johnson is hopeful. “AFSCAN is leading the way. We hope in the future that many of these diseases can be prevented,” she concludes.




[2] WSAVA Foundation

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