Innovator Profiles: Guy Palmer is Tackling Livestock Health to Strengthen Communities in Africa

Dr. Guy Palmer is a regents’ professor of Pathology and Infectious Diseases and the founding director of Washington State University’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health. Through game changing research, training and global outreach, he and his team are providing innovative solutions to some of the world’s most challenging diseases.

Catalyzed through a $26 million gift from Allen in 2010, the Paul G. Allen School at WSU, the only school of its type in the U.S., is focused on understanding diseases that move from animals to humans, which includes Ebola, rabies and the Zika virus.

We sat down with Palmer to talk about his work, how he thinks we can eliminate rabies once and for all and the hope this work has given him.

What is the focus of you work at the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health?

The overall scope of my work is on zoonotic infectious diseases, or the diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans. These have an impact not only on the health of humans but also on community development, economic and food security. There’s a gap where human health and animal health intersect and the school is focused on bridging that.

How did Paul get involved in the school?

I think he has tremendous compassion for people globally, but especially those in Eastern and Southern Africa. When we presented the concept of the school to Paul, I think he realized that we were doing something that was unique and we were willing to take some risks – thankfully he was willing to share that risk and his sense of innovation with us.

One area of focus for the school is ending rabies. Why did the school choose this infectious disease and why should people care?

It’s something that many American’s don’t think about thanks to our access to vaccines and education, but rabies is one of the deadliest disease on the planet. Each year, rabies kills nearly 60,000 people globally and half of those deaths are children. We’ve taken this infectious disease on because the tools are available to eliminate rabies. With new game-changing vaccine research and strong international partners, we’ve set out a goal to end rabies in Africa by 2030.

In 2014 Allen pledge $100 million toward the fight to tackle Ebola. How important are these commitments and recognition of the threat that infectious disease pose?

Paul’s response to the Ebola crisis was, obviously, extremely timely. It also exposed one of the real challenges we try to address – to deal with a disease outbreak after it has already spread into the human population.

This isn’t where we want to control the disease, so we’re innovating new ways to increase surveillance so that we’re actually seeing illnesses in wildlife and livestock before they spread to humans.

What’s one thing that has surprised you?

When we look into the impact of livestock disease, it’s very easy to compartmentalize that this is about saving cattle, sheep and goats. This isn’t our emphasis. Our focus is on the livelihoods of the people that depend on these animals.

We’ve seen – definitively – that vaccines can strengthen communities. For example, in East Africa, when Maasai families vaccinate their livestock to prevent East Coast fever their wealth and income increased.

What happened next surprised us the most. As you can imagine, these families spent more on food and healthcare but the biggest increase came in money spent toward girls’ education. This is important because the best way to end poverty is to get girls in schools.

What gives you hope

When communities buy-in. It gives me tremendous hope when I see a family realize that they’re not victims of circumstances, but in rather in control of this part of their lives.