While you likely already know that the tsetse fly causes sleeping sickness in people, you may not realize that it also spreads the often-lethal disease among cattle. This is particularly problematic in Africa, where the sickness results in huge losses in the production of milk, meat and labor. Help is on the way, however, in the form of antelope-scented cow collars.

Although tsetse flies readily feed on the blood of cattle, they tend to leave waterbuck antelopes alone. This is because they're repelled by the smell of the animals. A team of scientists from Switzerland, Kenya and the UK decided to try transferring that smell to cattle.

To do so, they first isolated, identified and synthesized the waterbuck's repellant compound in the laboratory. Small amounts of the substance were then placed in odor-emitting plastic containers, which were attached to cows via collars.

In a field test, 120 Maasai herders provided more than 1,100 of their cattle, some of which received the collars and others of which did not. It was found that sleeping sickness rates among the collar-protected animals were reduced by over 80 percent. Additionally, the protected cattle were generally found to be healthier and heavier, plus they plowed more land and achieved higher sales in regional markets.

And while it is possible to treat sleeping sickness with veterinary medication, use of the scented collars is claimed to be much less expensive – plus it keeps the cattle from getting sick in the first place.

"This method, successfully tested in practice, represents a significant advance for the food security of many pastoralists and cattle farmers in Africa," says Prof. Christian Borgemeister, of the University of Bonn.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases.