By Professor Sarah Cleaveland
The start of 2016 provides a timely moment for reflecting on the first year of the LLH programme – whirlwind months that have seen us progress from the official launch of the programme in Arusha in December 2014 to recruitment of project staff and full-scale implementation of research activities less than a year later.
The wide scope of LLH activities, the diversity of international partners, the ambition of our interdisciplinary research and policy objectives, and the increasing complexity of international research all present us with an interesting set of challenges. This is certainly the largest and most complex programme that I have been involved with, and at times the tasks have seemed overwhelming. But, step by step, we have been making steady progress, and now that we are fully operational we can look forward to an exciting year of research ahead.
The first major step was in recruiting Dassa Nkini as the research administrator at the Nelson Mandela Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST), and it is no exaggeration to say that her involvement in the project has been transformational. Together with our NM-AIST PI, Professor Joram Buza, Dassa expertly organised the first launch meeting in Arusha, which was no mean accomplishment, particularly given that project funds were not yet available in Tanzania. Our heartfelt thanks go to Dassa for all her efforts – and for not being daunted or deterred by such an intensive and challenging introduction to the project!
Research and policy partners
Although the workshop preparation remains a blur of organisation and planning, the workshop itself was very stimulating, with genuine enthusiasm and engagement from our research and policy partners. We are delighted that we were able to link up with the ZELS trypanosomiasis project for the workshop and are continuing to interact closely with the project in the field, particularly in relation to studies of Rift Valley fever mosquito vectors in and around the Serengeti.
The early part of 2015 saw a busy phase of recruitment, with Tanzanian veterinarians and field researchers recruited at NM-AIST, post-doctoral researchers recruited at University of Otago (Dr Kate Thomas), University of Glasgow (Dr Alicia Davis and Dr Will de Glanville) and STEPS Centre at the Institute of Development Studies (Dr Seamus Murphy) and our research manager recruited at Glasgow (Mary Ryan). During the year, we also gained a new partner, Dr Blandina Mmbaga, who took over as the local PI at the Kilimanjaro Clinical Research Institute (KCRI) following the departure of Professor Gibson Kibiki.
A major achievement during the year was the establishment of the Zoonoses Laboratory at KCRI, which, following initial refurbishment overseen by Professor Kibiki, was completed with the procurement of laboratory equipment and supplies through LLH. The lab is now able to receive animal samples for processing, diagnostic testing and analyses, and has been well supported through the supervision of Kate Thomas and the two KCRI laboratory technicians, Bora Almassy and Ephrasia Hugho.
With all project staff in post, initial procurement completed (including vehicles), and permits and ethical clearance approved, the LLH projects were able to start research activities in earnest from the middle of the year. Initial field activities, coordinated by Tito Kibona and Will de Glanville, included surveys in pastoral and peri-urban communities and involved sampling of livestock and people in villages from pastoral and peri-urban communities. There were also social science studies to understand people’s understandings and perception of zoonotic disease risks and approaches to disease control and prevention.
With the forecasts predicting a major El Niño event, the social science work, led by Alicia Davis, has focused particularly on Rift Valley fever (RVF), which often occurs as large outbreaks during El Niño years. The field teams have also been busy developing research protocols for investigating livestock movements and market networks, which will be a major area of research for 2016 and critical for understanding disease risks associated with livestock and livestock products.
In terms of policy interactions, LLH has already been active, providing support for the organisation of the Tanzania Livestock Modernization Initiative meeting in July and drafting of the policy document, with further policy analysis carried out by Seamus Murphy.
The end of the year has seen the start of the ZELS-Associated Studentship (ZELS-AS) programme, with a cohort of PhD students recruited by institutions in the ZELS initiative. Within the LLH programme we are delighted to welcome five students, from both the UK and East Africa and from a range of disciplinary backgrounds who will be studying topics relating to brucellosis, RVF, antimicrobial resistance, gender issues and healthcare provision. Three of our students were able to attend the ZELS-AS induction event in Cambridge in December. This two-day event provided networking opportunities with other students and PIs from several projects, and several presentations and activities to help give them the best possible start in their programme.
While 2015 has been a time of progress and excitement, we sadly lost one our KCRI team members at the beginning of January when Bora Almassy, a long-time employee of KCRI, passed away. Bora worked with the Zoonoses Laboratory and before joining the LLH team, was a key member of earlier projects with KCMC. Her expertise, wisdom and gentle good humour will be missed by all of us.
The start of 2016 will see the LLH team meet in Tanzania for the first time since the start of the project. We are looking forward to gathering in Moshi, catching up with friends and colleagues, and planning the next stages of the LLH adventure.