Scientists study how environmental and social change affects the spread of infection
13 Mar 2018
MRC-funded research is shedding light on how change in our natural, physical and social environments through globalisation, urbanisation, deforestation, changing food production and lifestyles may be inadvertently altering the patterns of disease spread.
In 2009, four UK research councils led by the MRC conceived and jointly supported the Environmental and Social Ecology of Human Infectious Diseases Initiative – or ESEI.
By 2012, three large interdisciplinary teams were awarded funding for studies that explore key drivers of change in three zoonotic diseases in three continents. The studies range from mapping bacterial hotspots in Nairobi, looking at the transmission of campylobacteria in the UK, to understanding why a monkey malaria is now infecting humans in Southeast Asia.
More than £11 million in funding was provided to these three consortia by the MRC, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council, and the Natural Environment Research Council. The Food Standards Agency provided additional financial support.
Dr Morven Roberts, Programme Manager for Tropical Infections at the MRC, said: “Our world is changing at an unprecedented rate. We see new or unusual patterns of disease occurring, often making the leap from an infection carried in animals. In the last five years alone, we’ve seen Ebola, Zika and MERS outbreaks, as well as a surge in antimicrobial resistance.
“The ESEI projects have taken on the challenge of identifying the key relationships between our natural and social environments that are altering the risk of disease.”
The scientists from these consortia are presenting their findings to stakeholders on 13 March at the Royal Society in London to showcase their last five years of research.
The three consortia include:
UrbanZoo, led by Prof Eric Fevre at the University of Liverpool, studied how rapid urbanisation in Nairobi is transforming the emergence of zoonotic pathogens. Prof Fevre and his team, including 12 UK and Kenyan partners, mapped bacteria within Nairobi’s livestock, wildlife, human population and environment, identifying key hotspots for disease transmission, particularly along food chains.
The researchers say their study is knowing the “recipe for transmission soup” but there is a silver lining: learning how a disease may fester means scientists know where to intercept – a crucial step in preventing the next global outbreak. Kenyan health officials are already applying the team’s findings to change standards in sanitation, meat butchering, and food transportation.
Enigma, led by Prof Sarah O’Brien at the University of Liverpool, explored Campylobacter in food pathways and the environment. Campylobacter is the most common bacterial cause of human diarrhoeal disease in the developed world.
While Campylobacter typically lives in the intestinal tracts of poultry and is commonly transmitted through foodborne infection, Enigma looked at how the bacteria is also found in water and the environment. It considered how our interaction with nature, from visits to the countryside or petting zoos, may play a role in the so-called ‘spring peak’ seasonal emergence of Campylobacter cases.
Prof O’Brien’s findings are contributing significantly to the development of the new UK Food Standards Agency foodborne disease strategy.
Monkeybar, led by Prof Chris Drakeley of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, focused on tracking the spread of a malaria parasite thought only to infect macaques but that is now infecting humans. Plasmodium knowlesi is the fifth known malaria to affect humans, with increasing reports of human infection and even death in countries from Malaysia and the Philippines.
The team says rapid deforestation in South East Asia is shifting monkey habitats and the breeding of mosquitoes, which transmit the disease to humans. Using high-tech drones equipped with cameras to study forests, and GPS collars on the primates, the scientists mapped how the change in land use related to the propagation of the so-called ‘monkey malaria’.
Prof Drakeley has already contributed his findings to the latest World Health Organisation malaria treatment guidelines.
The ESEI research is innovative in several ways: the projects embraced collaboration, establishing interdisciplinary teams of researchers with expertise in public health, veterinary medicine, epidemiology, biology, geographical sciences and other specialties.
The teams also engaged with local communities in the affected areas where the research took place. This important step helped in understanding the history and context of the changes taking place and involved the community in creative approaches to capturing new information.
Prof Fevre said: “It has been a real privilege for our team to benefit from MRC ESEI funding, which has broken down the disciplinary silos usually found in standard research council funding calls. The risky, interdisciplinary nature of our work has allowed us to rethink the way we approach our research on complex real world issues. The Urban Zoo project has helped us understand the world through the eyes of pathogens that are a disease emergence risk in urbanising Africa, and to work with the policy public to envisage ways of mitigating against risks in the future.”
Dr Roberts said: “ESEI brought together truly interdisciplinary teams of scientists, conducting high-quality, state-of-the-art innovative research, addressing international research priorities. Their results have informed and shaped public policy and healthcare practice within the UK and on a global stage.”