By Gemma Chaters
So I am a vet, five years qualified. I spent the first four in farm practice, in the beautiful English Lake District. I mastered the art of leaning over a gate, drinking coffee, cow wrestling and making serious clinical and often financial decisions for my clients. I increased farm productivity to the point that bigger bulk milk tanks were purchased and farmers were granted mortgages where previously they had been denied. I felt like a valued member of the community, and I was appreciated and respected by my clients.
I had a lovely cottage, a crazy spaniel and a garden which I transformed into an abundance of vegetable and floral goodness …
A PhD in zoonoses
So why did I decide to take a leap of faith, quit my job, complete a masters in veterinary epidemiology at the Royal Veterinary College and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and apply for the ZELS Associated Studentship Programme to do a PhD in the field of veterinary epidemiology and zoonoses?
Because this truly is the field in which I have always dreamed of working.
I am sure you can imagine the stream of questions I have had: ‘Why didn’t you like your job?’, ‘Why don’t you want to be a vet anymore?’
But I am still a vet, I will always be a vet. And I loved my job. But, I wasn’t quite fulfilled because, for me, zoonotic disease is where the real excitement lies, and to work in this field this is the path I have to take. No matter how much of a difficult decision it was to uproot from my happy and comfortable life, I knew this was the right thing to be doing with my life.
Working as a locum vet, nine days before I left for Tanzania. I was mid-caesarean on a lovely Limousin heifer when she managed to get loose and kick a hole in her own uterus, as well as me, a number of times. So, calmly grasping all of the torn tissue inside her abdomen, I instructed the farmer to get himself scrubbed as clean as possible to help me. The alternative: his prize-winning animal would bleed to death in minutes. When the drama had passed we resumed small talk and I said I wouldn’t be around for a bit as the following week I had my MSc exams and the next day I would be off to Tanzania to begin my PhD.
Saying it out loud sounded very far-fetched but the excitement I felt was undeniable. I was finally off on the path I had always dreamed of following.
A mix of disciplines
Dramatic part of the surgery completed, with the cow still standing, we resumed full conversation. We chatted more about what I was going to be doing and the importance of zoonotic diseases across the world. If he wasn’t convinced before, he is now: zoonoses is an important field for research! I explained how it needed a mixture of disciplines to come together to best understand how and why these diseases transmit the way they do, and what can possibly be done to reduce the impacts .
Now settled in Tanzania I find I have moved from one beautiful cottage to another. The one I am staying in has a huge garden and is on the doorstep of Mount Kilimanjaro. There are certainly worse views to wake up to.
Karibu (meaning ‘welcome’) is the most frequently-used word I have heard so far. I have learned that if you want to make a chocolate cake, to make sure that the flour you buy isn’t ‘spinach’ flour (something I will look out for in future!). And ants get everywhere. Everywhere.
So why the interest in zoonoses?
I believe zoonotic diseases are the most interesting and exciting of all diseases. They effect humans and animals. All sorts of different species can be involved in carrying zoonotic diseases, but my main area of interest is the zoonotic diseases that pass between humans and livestock.
We live in a world where the population is expanding at an incredible rate and it shows no sign of slowing down. We need to be able to feed this population and the most efficient way to do this is to ensure our animals are healthy. A sick animal is not an efficient convertor of grass and grain into meat, milk and draught power, and we need efficiency.
Our expanding population is also living in ever-closer proximity to livestock and wildlife, so there are more and more points of contact where existing diseases can transmit and also where we can see the emergence of new disease.
In a nutshell, a recent survey in hospitals found 30% of febrile illnesses to be caused by zoonotic diseases, only 5% of which were due to malaria. Yet we know the most common diagnosis and treatment in many areas is for malaria. So we need to raise the profile of zoonotic diseases and to understand much more about what drives the transmission of them.
My particular role in this is exploring livestock movements across Tanzania in an attempt to further understand how these movements link to disease exposure and transmission. I will be using a multitude of methods to create a livestock movements model and gathering samples from livestock to ascertain information on what diseases they are exposed to at different stages of life throughout different seasons and relating to different movement patterns.
So here is hoping that throughout my PhD, that along with the rest of the ZELS students we can find out a whole lot more about many aspects of zoonoses.
Gemma Chaters is one of five ZELS scholarship students working with the LLH programme.