Barefoot veterinarian

Alumnus travels the globe to fight animal disease

It’s safe to say that in the last 15 years, Dr. Jeffery Craver Mariner, V87, has worn out three times as many shoes as the average veterinary school graduate. His boots have trekked through miles of dense underbrush and over zillions of grains of sand to reach some of the Earth’s remotest spots in a quest to eradicate a deadly cattle virus.

Dr. Jeffery Mariner tackles nature’s obstacles with the same tenacity he used to conquer a deadly cattle disease.

Heading a team of Tufts development experts, Mariner—with a heat-stable vaccine in hand—joined the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Global Rinderpest Eradication Campaign in 1990 to obliterate rinderpest, a highly infectious bovine plague. Their efforts paid off.

Once a scourge in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and the Sudan, the virus now is thought to survive only in the Somali ecosystem in Kenya, Somalia and a bit of southeastern Ethiopia, Mariner says. The U.N. predicts that by 2010, rinderpest will follow in the footsteps of smallpox to become only the second disease in history to be eradicated.

Next on Mariner’s to-do list is measles.

Mariner acknowledges that his career path out of Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine has been non-traditional. “I saw the veterinary degree as more of a way to help people,” he says. The Tufts development team focuses on “food security in terms of people being able to eat and in livelihoods,” he says. In some parts of the world, “the cattle are the basis for the production system. That’s where all the food comes from, so [farmers] have to preserve the production base for the whole community to survive.” For his work on the rinderpest campaign, Mariner was awarded the veterinary school’s Dean’s Medal during commencement ceremonies in May.

After graduating from Tufts, Mariner started working at the USDA Plum Island Animal Disease Center off the coast of Long Island to direct Tufts’ research on the Thermostable Rinderpest Vaccine Transfer of Technology Project. The team succeeded in developing a heat-stable rinderpest vaccine that didn’t require constant refrigeration—allowing it to be transported to remote regions by foot, bicycle and animal transport.

Mariner went to Africa in 1990 to start vaccine production there. Working with the Organization of African Unity, UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Mariner’s development team organized networks of herders who taught their communities how to provide animal health services. The work was dangerous and required travel to isolated, insecure locations in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Chad, the Sudan and Cameroon. The team became known as “barefoot veterinarians.”

They quickly realized that to successfully abolish rinderpest, a different strategy was needed. “In the past, what the veterinary services had tended to do was come as the experts,” Mariner says. “They were there to tell the farmers what was the correct thing to do rather than listen. Our approach is to go out and learn from the farmers. We sit down with them and try to understand how they view the world and how they view animal disease. You’d think at times with the elders that you were almost listening to a vet professor talk about a disease problem. They had very detailed observations.”

The Tufts team used the information from these meetings to decide how best to pursue the eradication process. After seeing the results, the FAO asked Mariner’s team to use the same method for attacking classical swine fever in South America. He recently spent six days trudging through streams and up mountain paths to interview pig farmers in remote regions of Bolivia.

Mariner says his job is sometimes physically exhausting and difficult, but he says the biggest challenge is “working with people to influence them to take new approaches, to be open to change…and to have respect for all different types of people and cultures.”