WHO grant will fund infectious disease research in Tanzania

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A grant from the World Health Organization's Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases will help scientists from Penn State's Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences and the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology to investigate the impact of climate and land-use changes on infectious disease dynamics in Tanzania's Maasai Steppe.

The joint research grant, which is the first to be funded under the new EcoHealth collaboration between Penn State and the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Arusha, Tanzania, will support three years of collaborative research on the impact of climate and land-use changes on the dynamics of trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) and malaria. The $625,000 total of the grant will be used by NM-AIST to build research capacity and support its Ph.D. students working on the project.

Researchers from the Huck Institutes, along with faculty and students from NM-AIST and some of the local Maasai, have already begun preliminary work on the project, which will also involve faculty from Princeton University, the University of Glasgow, the University of Capetown and Tanzania's National Institute of Medical Research.

Penn State undergraduates also will be traveling to Tanzania in June to conduct fieldwork with the rest of the multidisciplinary research team.

Among the researchers from the Huck Institutes are Peter Hudson, director; Vivek Kapur, associate director for strategic initiatives; Anna Estes, research coordinator for Tanzania programs; Doug Cavener, professor and head of the biology department; Matt Thomas, professor of entomology; Rachel Smith, associate professor of communication arts and sciences; and Isabella Cattadori, assistant professor of biology. Robert Crane, director of Penn State's Alliance for Education, Science, Engineering and Development in Africa (AESEDA), is also involved in the project, as are Paul Gwakisa, Penn State adjunct professor and dean of the School of Life Sciences and Biongineering at NM-AIST, and Burton Mwamila, vice Chancellor of NM-AIST.

"We are absolutely thrilled to have received this grant with NM-AIST," said 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."

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 sedentary in order to cultivate crops to supplement their nutritional needs. 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 Anna Estes, who has been conducting ecological research in Tanzania for nearly two decades. "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."

The researchers plan to work with the Maasai to better understand the ways 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 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 through the Penn State/NM-AIST Tanzania EcoHealth Partnership website.

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Last Updated August 10, 2015