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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Lian Thomas

5 May, 2014

Lian ThomasAs part of the Wellcome Trust-funded project People, Animals and Zoonoses (PAZ), Dr Lian Thomas has carried out some fascinating work using GPS trackers on pigs to investigate the spread disease. We asked her some questions about her research and got an insight into her daily duties…

What are you researching?

I am a vet by training, but am really interested in diseases that can be transmitted between animals and people, and what we can do to control these.

My PhD work focused on the tapeworm “Taenia solium”, this horrendous parasite is passed to humans when they eat undercooked pork and can grow to lengths of more than two metres in the human gut.

As disgusting as this worm is, it’s the worm’s eggs that are more dangerous. These are passed out in human faecal material. If we ingest these eggs, maybe because people don’t wash their hands correctly, or through contamination of drinking water, these eggs become larval cysts in people’s bodies and have a tendency to go to the brain, where they cause epilepsy.

As pigs are important in the lifecycle of this parasite I did some work using GPS technology to track free-range pigs to identify where they may be acquiring the infection.

In a similar way to the BBC programme ‘The secret life of cats’ we attached GPS collars to ten pigs in Kenya. This allowed us to track the position of each pig every three minutes for a full week. I wish we’d had a ‘pig cam’ too!

What does your average day involve?

The field site for the PAZ project is in western Kenya, and our laboratory is in the small town of Busia. We are on a busy, dusty road often full of lorries waiting to cross the border to Uganda.

An average day in the field starts at 6am when our team meets at the laboratory and make sure we have all our kit ready for the day. Our field team includes animal health assistants and clinical officers and I think that everyone has loved working in a team of mixed disciplines. We have all been learning so much from each other about human and animal health.

We often visit a ‘slaughter slab’ early in the morning to sample animals before they are slaughtered. This is an important part of our work as it allows us to understand what diseases are entering the human food chain.

Sometimes we may stop at a farm to swap the GPS collars onto a new pig – this is always a fun activity with many people crowding round to find out what this little black box with the flashing light is doing on a pig!

Every day we visit one or two homesteads where we collect data from people living there and all of their animals. We use our land cruiser, affectionately known as ‘Mighty White’, to get to the homesteads and every day the journeys are a new adventure.  The big winch on the front of Mighty White has been invaluable to get us out of many sticky situations!

mighty_white_stuck_in_the_mud (1)

Sometimes even the land cruiser hasn’t been able to get us to the homesteads and we have been known to hire motorbikes, get lifts on boats or to walk for several kilometres with all our field kit to be able to find our study participants!

When we arrive at a homestead there is a hive of activity, with questionnaires being administered to every person who lives there, clinical officers undertaking physical examinations, and animal health assistants taking blood samples from livestock. By the end of the day we will have cool-boxes full of samples and lots of data all ready to take back to the laboratory for analysis.

Once the samples are safely returned to the laboratory, our efficient lab team get to work processing samples and recording any infections that they find. Based upon the results the lab team get we make a feedback plan for the study participants, this may involve treatment of certain parasites, advice or referrals for more advanced diagnostics.

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Why is your work important?

60% of human diseases are from animal origins and almost all of the most recent outbreaks of new diseases have originated from animals. This makes it very important to investigate regions where people have close contact with their livestock, such as western Kenya. These ‘interface’ areas are where new diseases may first be found and where ‘old’, endemic, diseases are still a large burden on human health.

The work we are doing on the movement of pigs is also really important for understanding how diseases are passed between pigs, or between pigs and humans, as free-range pigs scavenge for food.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

The World Health Organization has listed disease caused by Taenia solium as one of 17 ‘neglected tropical diseases’ that member states have agreed to control or eliminate. I hope that the work we have been doing will assist in the formulation of these control strategies and assist with the establishment of safe, viable pig production in western Kenya.

_MG_7441 (1)How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

When I was at vet school I also completed an MSc in animal production and I was lucky enough to travel to Uganda to undertake the research for this degree. Whilst there, I became very interested in the role that livestock play in poverty alleviation, but was also aware of the risks of disease transmission in these production systems.

This early experience encouraged me to pursue a PhD and to become involved in the improvement of livestock production systems for both economic enhancement and for disease reduction.

How has Wellcome Trust funding helped?

The PAZ study is an extensive, community-based study which is unique in its approach, focusing on multiple diseases in multiple hosts, and engaging a research team from multiple disciplines. Had it not been for the generous funding from the Wellcome Trust such an ambitious study would not have been realised.

happy_as_a_pig_in_.... (1)What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

So did ‘this little piggy’ really stay at home?

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

Any questions about my research over food… especially if we’re eating pork… the stories I tell tend to put people off their meals!

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I have an HGV license for lorries up to 32 tonnes and I can bake a mean cheesecake!

What keeps you awake at night?

Is the generator at the lab still running??!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Always iron your clothes when you’re in the field…. Mango flies lay eggs in the seams of your clothes when they are drying and the larvae then burrow into your skin where they develop… this happened to a friend of mine and isn’t a pretty sight!

The chain reaction question, set by our previous Research Spotlight participant Dr Colm Cunningham, is this: What recent technological advances have had the biggest impact on your work (or are shifts in your own thinking more important drivers?)

I think there are so many advances which have made the job of an epidemiologist easier – more sensitive and specific diagnostics, satellite tracking and remote sensing devices, and having such vast computing power at your fingertips. Five years ago I’d leave my computer for a day to run a model which now takes a few minutes… though that may just have been because I had a particularly slow computer at the time!.

In the sphere of disease control however, I think the key issue in many ways is human behaviour (for T. solium this includes how people choose to eat pork, their use of latrines, how they manage their pigs). Although our understanding of human motivation and how to influence behaviour change is obviously expanding all the time, human behaviour is probably one of the most challenging – but interesting – aspects of our work.

Dr Lian Thomas successfully passed her PhD viva last September and is now living in Zimbabwe. She is currently undertaking a consultancy with the World Health Organisation, on T.solium control, and awaiting the arrival of her first baby. You can read more about Lian’s work in the following papers: 

The spatial ecology of free-ranging domestic pigs (Sus scrofa) in Western Kenya

Focusing on neglected zoonoses

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 29 May, 2014 9:05 pm

    Reblogged this on Bibo.

  2. Nena Isbell permalink
    4 Jun, 2014 6:04 pm

    Toy lucky thing! Pigs are such wonderful and often overlooked creatures. btw – you need an ‘of’ in your first paragraph I think…
    KR, Nena

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