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Penn State and the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology receive one of five new grants from the World Health Organization's TDR program

The grant from the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) will fund 3 years of research on the impact of climate and land-use changes on trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) and malaria dynamics in Tanzania's semi-arid Maasai Steppe region.
Map of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, with steppe districts labeled. The Huck Institutes/NM-AIST project is being done in the districts adjoining Arusha.

Map of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, with steppe districts labeled. The Huck Institutes/NM-AIST project is being done in the districts adjoining Arusha.

By: Seth Palmer

The joint research grant — which will fund field research and support Ph.D. students at the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Arusha, Tanzania — is the first to be funded under the new Ecohealth collaboration between Penn State and NM-AIST.

Peter Hudson, Anna Estes, Doug Cavener, Matt Thomas, Rachel Smith, and Robert Crane from Penn State will work with a multidisciplinary group of researchers from NM-AIST including Penn State adjunct professor Paul Gwakisa, as well as faculty from Princeton University, the University of Glasgow, the University of Capetown, and Tanzania's National Institute of Medical Research.

"We are absolutely thrilled to have received this grant with NM-AIST," said Dr. Hudson. "It solidifies our emerging collaboration and will provide many more opportunities for faculty and students from both universities to interact. This project is truly interdisciplinary — involving climate, land use, and social science with disease ecology in a holistic Ecohealth approach that we hope will improve health outcomes in vulnerable communities in the Maasai Steppe. We are particularly pleased that this grant will fund graduate students at NM-AIST, helping to create the next leaders in the fields of climate change adaptation and disease ecology in sub-Saharan Africa."

Background on the project

For African herders and farmers, vector-borne diseases such as trypanosomiasis and malaria have long been a serious issue, and are expected to worsen as a result of changes in climate and land-use. The semi-nomadic Maasai pastoralists inhabiting the Maasai Steppe ecosystem of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya are particularly vulnerable to the combined effects of climate change and zoonotic diseases as they live close to large wildlife populations that can act as reservoirs of infection, and with which they may compete for access to water and forage for their cattle.

Agricultural encroachment and changes in the availability of water and grazing land are forcing the Maasai to change their traditional movement patterns; they have become more sedentarized in order to cultivate crops to supplement their nutritional needs, but at the same time they must also move in a greater area with their herds — lessening their ability to adapt to climate change and increasing their vulnerability to vector-borne diseases.

"We chose to focus on the Maasai Steppe because of its semi-arid climate and increasing pressure from both increasing agricultural expansion and climate change," explained research coordinator Anna Estes. "Both of these factors can threaten the livelihoods of the Maasai by restricting the areas where they can access grazing land and water for their cattle, which puts increasing pressure on the resources that do remain, and has in some cases forced the Maasai to move much farther in order to keep their herds alive."

She continued: "We intend to use intensive field sampling and modeling to map current infection risk and predict where the hotspots of infection are likely to occur in the future, given climate and land-use changes."

The researchers plan to work with the Maasai to better understand the was in which they currently respond to disease risk and climate adaptation, and then use that knowledge to introduce culturally-relevant innovations to reduce vector-borne infections. The majority of the research will be undertaken by graduate students at NM-AIST, co-advised by experts on the research team.

"There are two overarching goals in our study," said Dr. Estes. "The first is to use the outputs of our study to work with the Maasai to introduce and adopt appropriate control measures for vector-borne diseases; the second is to train a cohort of students in trans-disciplinary approaches to predicting and controlling vector-borne diseases in order to meet the future challenges of climate adaptation."

More information about the project is available on the Penn State/NM-AIST Tanzania EcoHealth Partnership website.

About the research team

Dr. Hudson

Peter Hudson is Director of the Huck Institutes, Willaman Professor of Biology at Penn State, a researcher in the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, and a faculty member of the Huck Institutes' graduate programs in ecology and immunology and infectious diseases.

Dr. Estes

Anna Estes is Research Coordinator for Tanzania Programs at the Huck Institutes, and has been conducting ecological research in Tanzania for over 15 years.

Dr. Cavener

Doug Cavener is Department Head and Professor of Biology at Penn State, a faculty member of the Huck Institutes' graduate programs in cell and developmental biologygeneticsmolecular medicineneuroscience, and physiology, and a researcher in the Center for Cellular DynamicsCenter for Molecular Investigation of Neurological Disorders, and Diabetes and Obesity Institute.

Dr. Thomas

Matt Thomas is Professor of Entomology at Penn State, a co-funded faculty member of the Huck Institutes, a researcher in the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.

Dr. Smith

Rachel Smith is Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State, and a researcher in the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.

Dr. Crane

Robert Crane is Director of the Alliance for Education, Science, Engineering and Development in Africa, and Professor of Geography at Penn State.

Huck-NMAIST group(Left to right) Darlene Rweyemamu (Senior Human Resource Management Officer, NM-AIST), Anna Estes, Burton Mwamila (Vice Chancellor, NM-AIST), Doug Cavener, Peter Hudson, and Paul Gwakisa (Dean, NM-AIST School of Life Sciences and Bioengineering).

Background on the World Health Organization/TDR

The World Health Organization's Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) is sponsoring major initiatives to study the interaction between environment and infectious disease, as well as the impact of climate change on infectious disease dynamics. The following is copied from their website:

Environment and infectious diseases

The environment plays a powerful role in the transmission of infectious diseases, including vector-borne diseases that are a major focus of TDR research. These include malaria, dengue, Chagas disease, human African trypanosomiasis, leishmaniasis, lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis and onchocerciasis.

Research to improve our understanding of environmental drivers of infectious disease can, in particular, lead to improved vector control measures and disease prevention. Research also needs to explore how policies of health, environment and development can best be aligned – since many vector control and disease prevention measures require action by sectors such as water, agriculture and sanitation – areas outside of the traditional domain of health services.

Environmental climate change impact

TDR is investigating the effects of environmental and climate change on major vectors and vector-borne diseases. The long-term aim is to develop strategies for reducing vulnerability and increasing the resilience of populations at risk. As a first step, in collaboration with the Climate and Health Working Group of Ethiopia, Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), IDRC-Canada, and WHO’s Protection of the Human Environment department and its African regional office, experts and key regional stakeholders are coming together to assess and, through consensus, prioritize research and capacity building needs on public health adaptation and resilience to social, environmental and climate change impacts on vector-borne diseases in Africa. This work supports the WHO African Regional Committee for Africa's Framework for Public Health Adaptation to Climate Change in the Africa Region.

Read more on the WHO/TDR website about their sponsored research initiatives focusing on the interaction between environment and infectious disease and the impact of climate change on infectious disease dynamics.