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New interdisciplinary training launched in Kenya to combat emerging diseases like COVID-19

Feb 15, 2021

Nairobi - After the devastation of COVID-19, a disease that was transmitted to humans from animals, a new interdisciplinary PhD program has recently launched to provide combined training of doctors and veterinarians to learn how to work together to handle similar pandemics in the future.

The new Zoonotic and Emerging Infectious Diseases Training Program is housed at the University of Nairobi, in partnership with Washington State University Global Health Kenya, and the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI). The program will address a significant need by strengthening in-country research capacity to detect and respond to zoonotic diseases. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that more than 75 percent of infectious diseases that are currently threatening humankind — like COVID-19 or Ebola — come from animals. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave $1million (about Sh110M) to two senior professors to implement the program, Drs. Kariuki Njenga and Walter Jaoko. 

Dr. John Gachohi, the academic coordinator, said this research program is distinguished from most due to the multidisciplinary approach and emphasis on field experience. He also said the ten students will be conducting ongoing research at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), University of Nairobi’s Institute of Tropical and Infectious Diseases (UNITID), the Kenyan Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Dr. Gachohi explained the uniqueness of the PhD further, “Apart from the academic supervisors, the students will also be assigned mentors who will ensure that they learn much more beyond the academics of what it is to be an infectious diseases scientist, as they will gain skills like how to apply for funding and managing their projects.” 

The cohort will be among the few researchers trained on the continent in One Health, an emerging discipline in science that tackles infectious diseases by approaching public health as linked to the humans, animals, and their shared environment.  

This applied expertise is critical for Kenya. A 2016 report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that a new zoonosis is discovered every four months all over the world often in bat-filled trees, camel barns and other places. Kariuki Njenga, a professor in emerging infectious diseases and one of the principal researchers in charge of the program, said that Kenyans come close to these viruses every day and the science and medical communities needs to be prepared when those encounters result in disease.  

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics recorded that Kenya’s population was 47.6 million in 2019, a rapid growth in the last decade. With a growing population and need for protein foods, as well as places to live, people are thronging to urban centres increasing the demand for food and housing. The increased demand is forcing farmers in Kenya to grow more crops, raise food animals, and requires more land and development further out from the urban centers.  

“The activities such as farming and construction is making Kenyans push closer and closer to animal habitat, which forces animals to leave those forests and barns possibly with deadly infectious diseases, and we must be prepared with well-trained researchers who can save people and populations when that happens,” Professor Kariuki. 

Apart from the new viruses, there are neglected diseases that remain in Kenya killing people. Andrew Karani, a medical doctor and one of the students, said that as a young medical doctor in the North Eastern Kenya, he encountered a lot of patients with Brucellosis and Dengue Fever. He is now investigating why another coronavirus deadlier than COVID-19 called Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS CoV) which comes from camels, has killed many in the Middle East yet no death has been recorded in Kenya even though the disease is also in camels in Kenya. 

Dr. Karani, “They all present with the same symptoms, so I am trying to understand what is unique about Kenyans, or perhaps we do get the disease but haven’t identified it properly in humans and assumed it is something else.”