By Mary Ryan

Getting a multi-partner, multi-grant, multinational research programme underway is no mean feat, and yet a group of researchers funded under the ZELS programme aims to do just that.

The ZELS office in NM-AIST.

The ZELS office at NM-AIST, Arusha.

Gathering collaborators from New Zealand, Tanzania and the UK, the zoonoses programme, led by the University of Glasgow, is an ambitious international research initiative. With a focus on understanding zoonotic diseases and how human activities drive exposure and transmission, it is built from three interconnected ZELS research grants – Social, Economic and Environmental Drivers of Zoonoses in Tanzania, Food Safety Hazards in Emerging Livestock Meat Pathways and the brucellosis project – as well as two linked capacity-strengthening projects. Together, they hope to accomplish more with a cohesive research programme than with single projects.

Our initial meetings focused on figuring out how a group of independent-minded people and partners can work together to understand zoonoses and use that knowledge to drive policy to improve the lives of animals and people in Tanzania. Imagine herding highly educated cats and it will give you some idea of the task we faced.

The disease drivers project forms the backbone of the zoonoses programme, and is led by professors Sarah Cleaveland and Jo Sharp. Its goal is to identify the human and environmental elements that affect zoonotic disease transmission, how those factors change through time and what interventions are likely to produce the greatest impact on control of zoonotic disease. The project is largely focused on livestock-human interactions, such as how farmers manage their herds and flocks.

Mapping meat distribution

Of course, this isn’t the whole picture, because our interaction with animals and disease doesn’t end with livestock, but rather with the meat on our tables. That’s where the project on meat risks, led by Prof Ruth Zadoks, comes in, mapping the distribution of meat in Tanzania from the farmers and their live animals, to the dinner table. This work is a joint effort with the disease drivers project.

Post-docs, Alicia Davis and Will de Glanville, will lead our field teams to trace meat production pathways, understand how people use these systems and collect samples for lab analysis all along the way. These samples will be used to find out what bacteria are in our food and where the areas of greatest risk of transmission exist.

Testing all the samples flowing in from our field teams rests largely with our post-doc Kate Thomas. Kate is busily working to get our new zoonoses lab up and running at the Kilimanjaro Clinical Research Institute (part of the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre, one of our key partners).

Members of the ZELS team in Tanzania take a tour of the zoonoses lab, which is in its early planning stages.

Team members tour the zoonoses lab in its early planning stages.

Once up and running, the lab will focus on testing for Salmonella and Campylobacter in meat, and use that information to identify key risk points in the meat supply chain.

Rounding out our work is the brucellosis project, which is focused on Brucella, a key pathogen in the bacterial zoonoses project, a forerunner of the disease drivers work. Led by Dr Jo Halliday and Prof Dan Haydon, the brucellosis project aims to work out which livestock species are responsible for human disease, an essential piece of the puzzle needed to control the disease. The lab work of the brucellosis project and the meat risks work will proceed in tandem, drawing strengths from each project to help ensure the success of both.

Exploring disease policy

From sample collection and testing in the meat markets of Moshi, our focus will become disease policy and prevention. Our meetings in Tanzania have led to questions of exactly what policy is currently in place relating to zoonotic diseases and how those policies are currently applied on the ground. Our post-doc Seamus Murphy will pursue these lines of enquiry.

Many of the discussions taking up time have not  been exactly glamorous: finance, administration, communication. But they are the building blocks of the projects through which we will answer many questions over the coming years: What is making people sick? How do our relationships with livestock influence disease risk? How does the meat we eat and how we obtain it influence our risk? What can we be doing to keep people from getting sick?

By sharing skills, resources and work across an interconnected network of researchers, the zoonoses team hopes to collect data, work with local people and provide evidence to support policy which will improve the daily lives of Tanzanians and their animals.

Mary Ryan is the programme administrator for LLH.


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