The bird lady

Photography: Nick Cubbin

Her expertise in poultry health has put Robyn Alders at the forefront of international avian flu research. Now she’s putting her knowledge to work here in Australia, to improve biosecurity and nutrition. By Harry Pearl

“In the early days of avian influenza we were all about to die,” says Robyn Alders in her measured tone. Alders—who is now an associate professor at the University of Sydney—is recalling her work on the frontline of the deadly ‘bird flu’ pandemic that swept from Asia across the globe in 2003.

As one of the world’s foremost experts in the relatively small field of village poultry, she was tapped by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to help stop the spread of the h5n1 virus in 2006.

Initially, she found herself in Bangkok, devising programs to be applied in chicken-keeping villages in Laos and Cambodia. Then she moved to Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling and dirty capital.

By 2007, Indonesia was recording the highest number of human avian flu infections in the world. On Christmas day that year, a 24-year-old woman from West Jakarta died, bringing the country’s death toll to 94, according to the World Health Organization. With each new diagnosis, pressure mounted on staff at the FAO.

“There was this concern that maybe this h5n1, because it had spread so quickly and so many people were dying, at some stage would mutate and start transmission people to people,” she says.

Alders—veterinarian, humanitarian, farmer and globetrotter—is telling me all this in her office at the University of Sydney’s veterinary science faculty in the Charles Perkins Centre. To one side of the room, on the floor, boxes full of notes and files are stacked on top of each other. Posters of the 2014 NRL champions, the South Sydney Rabbitohs, have been cut from a newspaper and pinned to a noticeboard. Dangling behind the glass window near the door are four “evil spirit catchers” she’s collected on her travels: from Timor-Leste, Lao, Thailand and Vietnam.

In February, at a glitzy evening in Canberra, Alders was honoured with the Mitchell Humanitarian Award for her work improving family poultry health in Africa and Asia. But now, after more than two decades abroad, she’s set on applying her expertise to food security and nutrition in Australia.

Alders, who is 57, grew up on “the back of a horse” on a farm in Taralga in NSW’s Southern Tablelands. The youngest of three children, she was first in her family to finish high school and attend university. “The idea of being a vet came to me after my horse got sick and a vet helped her get better,” she says. “That was when I was 12.”

After completing a Bachelor of Veterinary Science and then a Bachelor of Science (Veterinary) at the University of Sydney, she studied for a Graduate Diploma in Veterinary Clinical Studies at the university’s Camden campus.

As a student at the University of Sydney, Alders attended Wesley College, a Protestant campus of international lecturers and students with a strong social justice bent. It was there, she says, she gained an understanding “the world was a big place, and an uneven place.” It helped lead her down a very different path to that of many in her cohort.

In 1989, after completing her PhD in veterinary immunology at the Australian National University, she left for Africa to take up a position as a lecturer at the University of Zambia.

While there, Alders taught everything from veterinary immunology to obstetrics to equine medicine. She remembers her Zambian colleagues fondly, and feeling “very white” in the tumultuous political environment she found herself in.

Zambia was one of the wealthiest countries in Africa following independence in 1964, thanks largely to its vast copper deposits, but by the time Alders arrived the economy was in trouble and living standards were falling.

“Copper prices had fallen and things were quite difficult,” Alders says. “Three weeks after I arrived, the then president decided to engage with the World Bank, and that began a program of what was called structural adjustment.”

There was a wage freeze, subsidies for agriculture were slashed and value of the local currency, the kwacha, plummeted. Food riots broke out in 1990. “It was a really good learning experience about how some of these programs worked,” she says of the World Bank’s economic reforms.

“We need to step back and have a look at what we eat and what do we need to eat. And how do we use and manage land so that we enable people to have a decent diet and we enable ecosystems to continue to have the diversity that we need?”

After three years in Zambia, Alders returned to Australia briefly before going to Mozambique. Although she had no experience working in foreign aid, she was headhunted for a role as a program officer at Community Aid Abroad, which is now known as Oxfam Australia.

In Mozambique, Alders was thrown into development work in a country only just emerging from a 16-year civil war. She remembers driving through a country littered with landmines (“When you travelled you couldn’t leave the road”) and having to navigate a complex political situation to deliver aid (“You certainly learn to keep your mouth closed”).

Dodging explosives aside, Alders was kept busy establishing small-scale agriculture projects in the country: initiatives like restoring water supplies and providing seeds for crops. It was vaccinating chooks, however, where she made her most invaluable contribution.

Chickens are one of the most commonly kept livestock in the developing world. Requiring little in the way of feed or pasture, they are especially important to the world’s rural poor. They can provide income, meat and protein from eggs. But each year Newcastle disease kills millions of chickens. The virus, which was first recognised in Indonesia and England in 1926, is highly pathogenic and can wipe out a flock within a few days.

Professor Peter Spradbrow from the University of Queensland’s School of Veterinary Science  developed the first heat-resistant Newcastle disease vaccine in the mid 1980s. Alders, who started work with the university in Mozambique in 1996, built on Spradbrow’s work to deliver the vaccine in Africa.

From 1996 to 2001, Alders worked with farmers to devise a method to vaccinate sick birds. In Asia, a feed carrier was used but it quickly became clear that wasn’t going to work in Mozambique.

“When I got to Mozambique at the end of the civil war, it was the end of the drought as well; there was just no way birds were going to be given white rice,” she says.

Eventually, eye drops were settled on—a process Alders says gives much better seroconversion and requires less frequent vaccinations. The program, supported by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and AusAID, was a success. ACIAR estimated in 2014 that more than 60 million chickens were vaccinated using the I-2 vaccine in Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania. In Mozambique, vaccination against Newcastle disease is now a mainstream political policy. But locals were sceptical at first.

“For those who decided to present their birds, often initially they wouldn’t give you all the birds. If they had 10 birds, they might just present five to see whether the birds would die after you vaccinated them. If the birds were still alive a week later they might say, ‘Oh, I’ve found a few more’.”

Alders left Mozambique in 2006. Following an almost four-year stint tackling bird flu in Asia, she took a job as director of the International Veterinary Medicine Program at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in the US. As the only international vet medicine program in the world, it was a perfect fit.

“While I’d spent what looked like a lot of time working on infectious diseases, my aim was not infectious disease control; my aim was to help people eat better—to stop birds dying so children could have something decent to eat,” Alder says.

It was around that time she started thinking of Australia’s own nutritional problems. Almost two in three Australian adults and 25 per cent of children are overweight or obese, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. A large portion of the population also has inadequate micronutrient intake, reveals data from the Australian Health Survey.

Alders says, “I learned a bit of Portuguese while I was in Mozambique and it’s a Latin language. The ‘mal’ part means bad, bad nutrition. It’s not just about starving children. It’s also about being overweight and obesity; that’s also malnutrition.”

Alders—who owns a farm that produces Merino sheep about 30 minutes from where she grew up—says Australia needs to set a better example. For a start, using scarce cropping land to produce grains for commercial poultry feed may not be the best use of resources, she says. Australians’ love of junk food is not helpful either.

“We need to step back and have a look at what we eat and what do we need to eat,” Alders says. “And how do we use and manage land so that we enable people to have a decent diet and we enable ecosystems to continue to have the diversity that we need?”

Alders still spends about four months a year working abroad, mainly in Tanzania, Zambia and Timor-Leste.

In Australia, she is supervising a small number of students who are conducting research into food and nutrition security, while promoting sustainable, nutrient-rich agriculture.

“My aim is to support and promote the crucial contributions of family farmers to national health and wellbeing as the producers of the best medicine, i.e. healthy, nutritious food,” she says.

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