India’s rural villages and towns are home to more than 65% of the country’s population. With their livelihoods often dependent on the health of their livestock, when outbreaks of deadly animal diseases strike, whole communities can suddenly plunge into poverty.
Having grown up in the fertile Punjab countryside, the desire to help protect rural farmers’ livelihoods was what motivated Dr. Shukriti Sharma to accept an Australia Awards Endeavour scholarship to study a PhD in molecular biology at the University of Melbourne.
“Molecular biology is the most fantastic science on the basis of which we can diagnose most of the infectious pathogens,”
Dr. Sharma explains as he analyses blood samples recently collected from a nearby sheep farm in his lab at Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (GADVASU), in the Punjab.
In 2012, when he returned from Australia, Dr. Sharma started working at the University as an Assistant Professor. He quickly set about establishing this lab. In just a few years, this small facility has had a big impact as the first in the region where tests can be carried out to conclusively diagnose highly contagious and fatal animal diseases, such as Brucellosis and Mycoplasmosis.
These diseases affect the respiratory systems of cattle, sheep, goats and chickens and left unchecked, they spread rapidly wiping out entire herds, Dr. Sharma explains.
“So if we can provide a proper diagnosis, quickly, we can contain the outbreaks, saving farmers huge amounts of money,” he says.
One of the samples analysed in the lab today proved positive for Brucellosis and members of Dr. Sharma’s rapid response team will now work with the affected farms to contain the disease before neighbouring herds are contaminated.
Many farmers have benefited from these new services set-up by Dr. Sharma using the knowledge he gained in Australia. The new services have also helped to further enhance the prestige of GADVASU University, which is considered a leading Agricultural University in India and abroad, attracting students from around the world. Likewise, during the annual livestock fair, organized by the University, the grounds are awash with colourful turbans as farmers from nearby and hundreds of kilometres away come to learn about the latest techniques in animal care.
But, Dr. Sharma refuses to rest on his laurels and is keen to see diseases such as Brucellosis considered a thing of the past, as they are in many western countries. “In future, I would love to take the lead to produce vaccines against diseases affecting Indian livestock,” he says.
“We always say prevention is better than cure and if we can develop a good vaccine, we can eradicate the pathogen and protect our livestock,” he says.
Dr. Shukriti Sharma is Australian by degree.