Zhang Pu demonstrates how to collect blood samples on an animal
Guarding the Mandeb Strait - the lifeline linking the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean - Djibouti’s geographical location is extremely advantageous. The country is an obligatory stop for East African countries wishing to export cattle, sheep, camels and other livestock abroad. However, its strategic location comes with a downside: it also means greater risks of diseases spreading in the country.
Therefore, it is crucial for Djibouti to scientifically and accurately monitor the eight serious epidemic diseases commonly found in the East African region, including Rift Valley fever, foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), ovine rinderpest and contagious bovine pleuropneumonia.
However, due to a lack of relevant technologies and equipment, Djibouti’s Department of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Medicine, which should be responsible for detecting and monitoring these diseases, has failed to carry out the work independently. As a result, the work has been undertaken by private laboratories for a long time.
"It always costs more to have the epidemic diseases detection work done by private laboratories, and what’s more, the role of Djibouti’s Department of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Medicine, with a national-level laboratory, cannot be taken into full play," said Zhang Pu, a 36-year-old Chinese veterinary expert, who is a member of the Third Chinese Senior Expert Group on Agricultural Technology in Djibouti. Aware of this problem, he decided to make a change and help the laboratory stand steady on its own.
The first goal of Zhang was to help the four local technicians in the laboratory master the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test technique. "Once the technicians in the laboratory master this technique, they will be able to do the daily testing of most of the epidemic diseases independently. With improved capacity, the laboratory will be able to provide effective data for risk assessment on the epidemic diseases as well as for their prevention and control," Zhang told ChinAfrica.
From April 2016, Zhang gave a 23-day test demonstration and training for the local technicians. They tested 950 samples of FMD, 440 samples of ovine rinderpest, 750 samples of Rift Valley fever and 420 samples of contagious bovine pleuropneumonia. The training combined both theory and practice. A theory course on each of the animal diseases laboratory testing technique was followed by a three-day practice. Zhang also combined training with the routine work of the laboratory, so as to avoid delaying their work and wasting reagents and consumables.
In order to ensure the effectiveness of the training, in January 2017, he gave a test to the laboratory technicians. As part of the evaluation, Zhang tested their diseases testing capability, and the final test results showed that, except for one staff who was studying abroad, the other three were able to independently use the ELISA test method.
Waiss Miguil, head of the laboratory, appreciated Zhang’s work, noting that it was due to Zhang’s assistance and hard work that the staff of his lab had made great strides both in terms of technical expertise and operational norms.
Zhang Pu (left) trains his students in the laboratory
Improving the level of veterinary laboratory testing is only a part of Zhang’s work in Djibouti.
Though he is quite young, Zhang has a rich 14-year work experience to draw on. Prior to his arrival in Djibouti in November 2015 on a foreign-aid mission launched by the Chinese Government, he had been working in the Gaoling District Agroforestry Bureau in Xi’an, capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province.
This is Zhang’s first foreign-aid mission abroad. After arriving in Djibouti, he got sick due to differences in climate. However, his arrival coincided with the implementation of a major animal disease surveillance project led by the African Union. Chinese experts were urgently needed to help with the virus sample collection and testing of animal diseases and the epidemic prevention and control.
Given the circumstances, and in spite of his illness, Zhang immediately got to work. Together with the expert group leader and clinical veterinary expert Xiao Renrong, they conducted intensive continuous fieldwork in Ali-Sabieh, Dikhil, Arta, Tadjourah and other regions in Djibouti for more than a month.
"Every test has a deadline. At that time, Djibouti’s technicians couldn’t complete the work independently. If I had left halfway through the work due to my physical ailment, a large number of testing couldn’t have been completed on time," said Zhang. "Our technical support should be consistent with Djibouti’s needs."
In addition to the need for scientific testing methods and operation norms, advanced testing equipment is also crucial to laboratory tests. Even the conditions of basic infrastructure such as lighting and water supply could directly affect the laboratory testing on diseases. In fact, the lack of funds led to a lack of maintenance of the national laboratory’s equipment, including the lighting, gate locks and water supply system. One of the main ELISA testing equipment in the lab was even out of use for a long time.
Witnessing the poor conditions of the laboratory, Zhang discussed solutions to the problems with Xiao and Moussa Ibrahim Cheick, Director of Djibouti’s Resources Livestock and Veterinary Services. They decided that the expert group would provide funding for maintenance and upgrading of the laboratory equipment.
"The purpose of our work here is to help improve their hardware and software and contribute to the development of Djibouti’s livestock sector, thus further promoting the friendship between our two countries," said Zhang.
The laboratory returned to normal work after the revamping work. When the director’s French friend Luc Rosé, who had worked in the laboratory several years ago, came to visit, he was surprised by the changes. He said he really admired the Chinese experts for their hard work in training the local staff with good results.
Zhang’s achievements have received praise from Djibouti authorities on several occasions. On June 5, 2016, Djibouti’s Ministry of Agriculture, Water, Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Fishery Resources sent an appreciation letter to the Chinese Embassy in Djibouti, saying that Xiao and Zhang had done satisfying work since they came to Djibouti on November 19, 2015, and the achievements and dedication of Chinese experts had won respect from local veterinary professionals.
Zhang said that his mission in Djibouti is not over yet, and his next goal is to conduct training in fluorescence polymerase chain reaction testing techniques and the use of fully automated fluorescent polymerase chain reaction instrument training. According to him, the training will further enhance the capacity of laboratory technicians and help Djibouti carry out a more comprehensive monitoring of major animal diseases.