Rural Women New Zealand and Leptospirosis
Leptospirosis is a family problem, so doing something to combat this debilitating disease has been a perfect fit for Rural Women New Zealand, which is all about improving the well-being of rural families and communities.
Help, support and a prod in the right direction
When we launched our first lepto fundraising campaign as a Golden Jubilee project back in 1973, the Taranaki Daily News editorial summed it up perfectly:
“Country women have their roots in the soil and their feet on the ground. They know too well, at first hand, the disadvantages of rural life as well as its glories. They also know, probably because of the versatility that is thrust upon them in their daily life, that the experts in any field need help, support and sometimes prodding if any problems touching country living are to be removed.”
So who better to help, support and prod than Women’s Division Federated Farmers, (WDFF), as we were then known?
A national fundraiser
The national project was spearheaded by the charismatic Val Tarrant, a Taranaki dairy farmer’s daughter and a sheep and cattle farmer’s wife, who was at the time the North Island Vice President of our organisation.
Launched by the small Tarurutangi branch, ‘with a vigour that belies its numbers’, at the War Memorial Hall in Waitara on 16 October 1973, the project boldly aimed to raise funds for research into the eradication of leptospirosis.
The Daily News again: “It is a worth-while project, for this is a scourge that the country can well do without and it is a real problem in Taranaki. Indeed it is so prevalent that it has long been looked on as an occupational hazard in the dairy industry. It affects a considerable number of farmers, their wives and children and other people in the industry and there has yet to be found a vaccine satisfactory for use in human beings.”
The campaign was picked up by WDFF branches and provincials right around the country who sent in donations large and small to the Leptospirosis Fund through to 1976.
Initially the money was given to Massey for research into leptospirosis in dairy cattle; then in the 1980s came a second push.
In 1984 our lepto fundraising was re-launched as a WDFF Diamond Jubilee project. This time the focus was on fundraising for research into lepto in pigs.
The results were impressive. In the 1970s and 1980s around $150,000 was raised, over 70 research papers published by Massey scientists with WDFF financial support, and vaccines developed for cattle and pigs, leading to a dramatic drop in human suffering.
Public health push
Then in 2006, following the death of a worker at a sheep-only meat works, Massey University scientists approached Rural Women New Zealand for further financial assistance, spurring another lepto fundraising drive. In one year, $107,000 was raised by Rural Women NZ members, which was used to fund a PhD student looking into the transmission of lepto from animals to humans.
Her study of workers at sheep and deer abattoirs revealed a high exposure to the disease, especially at the beginning of the slaughter board.
This was a real milestone, as this was the first public health-focused PhD in lepto at Massey.
The remainder of the Rural Women NZ funding helped to support another PhD student, whose project is around diagnostic tests for humans and animals in NZ.
And Rural Women’s involvement hasn’t stopped there.
From 2011 to 2013, Rural Women New Zealand has chaired the Farmers Leptospirosis Action Group, (FLAG), comprising Massey researchers, farmers, industry and community organisations.
With Sustainable Farming Fund backing, FLAG is looking at the effects of leptospirosis on productivity and profitability for sheep and beef farmers, and the potential cost benefits of vaccinating livestock.
The three year project also involves sharing new and existing information about leptospirosis, so that farmers can make good decisions.
Massey University is recognised as an international leader in lepto research. Rural Women NZ is proud to have played a part in facilitating this important work, and hope to continue our partnership in the future.
Early History Images