Traverse north by car a few hours through the bustling and sprawling city of Kampala to the rolling and lush, green hills of Luwero with its dense jungles packed with banana trees, pineapple fields and livestock, and it's easy to see why thousands of Ugandans call this picturesque but remote district home.
Food, friendly smiles and warm hospitality are abundant in Luwero, despite harsh realities and heartbreak caused by disease that has rocked local villages in recent years. Ground zero for the world's last few breakouts of Ebola--a highly contagious, often-fatal virus believed to be transmitted by animals to humans-Luwero residents are looking for answers and shelter in a storm of daily uncertainty.
For many, One Health--a joint venture coordinated by the Uganda government and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), held in Luwero from April 9-26-- may be the answer to their collective prayers. One Health pairs experts in human and animal healthcare from the Uganda People's Defense Force (UPDF) and the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) with their civilian counterparts.
One Health, a medical concept with roots dating back to ancient Greece, recognizes that the health of humans, animals, and ecosystems are interconnected, said U.S. Army Maj. Thamus J. Morgan, 411th Civil Affairs battalion veterinarian. Therefore, only by applying coordinated, collaborative and multidisciplinary efforts between animal and human healthcare specialists can worldwide epidemics, like the spread of Ebola and other deadly communicable diseases, be contained.
"It's the circle of life," said Morgan, who comes from the U.S. state of Connecticut. "We are all connected and more alike with animals than we are different. In Uganda, humans and domestic animals are pushing into the disappearing buffer zone that used to exist with wild animals."
Unfortunately, Morgan added, there are consequences to the disappearing buffer zone. Morgan is a Reservist who works as a foreign animal disease diagnostician for the Department of Homeland Security and helps develop countermeasures to diseases that originate in Africa. Sharing best practices with UPDF soldiers and Ugandan civilians helps strengthen both institutional capabilities and advance U.S. interests.
"We are helping protect the (U.S.) economy, the market, the farmers and animals by keeping these devastating diseases out of our country," noted Morgan.
Leading these efforts is Maj. Dr. Godwin Bagashe Bagyenzi, a research scientist and the only military veterinarian in the UPDF. With help from USAID, his team facilitated several hands-on visits for more than 20 civilian community animal healthcare specialists and UPDF and U.S. soldiers at remote local farms. At the farms, the teams work together to test long-horned Ankole-Watutsi and Boran cows, pigs and chickens for signs of deadly diseases such as anthrax and tuberculosis; perform de-worming; and administer other preventive care measures.
"We come here together and try and address issues of public health," said Bagyenzi. "We try to make sure that animals produced here on the farm are healthy enough because they will end up in the food chain and be consumed by humans."
This is a benefit for Hakim Kyaze, whose 400 head of cattle not only produces food for his family and the local community, but also supplies more than 20 sustainable jobs for workers in the community.
"This kind of operation should not stop here," said Kyaze, whose cattle received critical preventative care from One Health students and soldiers. "It's a great opportunity for the Ugandan and American people to come together and learn better animal healthcare activities. I wish this kind of activity will be on an annual basis."
That would suit U.S. Army Capt. Danielle Diamond, CJTF-HOA Surgeon Cell veterinarian, just fine.
"We come out every morning ready to learn, ready to teach, ready to make friends and learn about the local customs," said Diamond. "This is not only a great mission as a veterinarian, it's a great as a soldier, too, knowing you are here helping strengthen Uganda's capabilities while protecting people back home."
If enhancing security and safety for Uganda is the shared goal, it starts at the local village level, said Dr. Douglas Kibuukam, a local veterinarian participating in the One Health program. His practice extends into the 200-home village of Kakute, site of the deadly outbreak of Ebola in November.
"Through preventive care, education and sharing lessons learned with UPDF and American soldiers, we're teaching villagers how to prevent such diseases such as Ebola, malaria, and smallpox," said Kibuukam, who works closely with the UPDF and the Ugandan government to prevent widespread disease outbreaks. "It's a wonderful experience because I never got to work with Americans before and they bring knowledge, advice and equipment to get the job done right."