Category: School of Public Health

World Water Week: Tackling a neglected health crisis

Family in a lake, Niger

Can you imagine life without access to clean water? Unfortunately for 663 million people this is a reality. That’s nearly one in ten people worldwide living without a safe water supply close to home, spending hours queuing or trekking to distant sources and coping with the health impacts of using contaminated water. SIWI’s (Stockholm International Water Institute) World Water Week, is a pertinent time to reflect on important research carried out by the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), a non-profit initiative based at Imperial College London, which highlights why access to clean water is so important to human health.

Schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia, is a type of parasitic ‘worm’ infection affecting individuals in sub-tropical and tropical regions of the world. It is a major, yet neglected public health problem, where estimates showed that at least 218 million people required preventive treatment in 2015, of which at least 20 million suffer from severe and debilitating forms of the disease (World Health Organisation, 2016). The SCI support treatment programmes against schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminth infections in 16 sub-Saharan African countries and Yemen. Since its foundation in 2002, the SCI has supported the delivery of over 140 million treatments for these infections.

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Why study frogs in the School of Public Health?

Rhacophorus moltrechti – a species of frog endemic to Taiwan. Photographed by Lin Chun-Fu.
Rhacophorus moltrechti – a species of frog endemic to Taiwan. Photo by Lin Chun-Fu.

Close your eyes and imagine the high-pitched shrieking of cicadas unified in a crescendo of noise from the treeline. Fireflies blinking their fluorescence through the undergrowth. Bats swooping silently overhead, rustling your hair with their wing beats. Trekking across steep hillsides of wasabi plants during a rainstorm. Not the average working week of a researcher in the School of Public Health, but just some of the sights and sounds I was fortunate to experience when I visited Taiwan in May as a National Geographic Young Explorer.

The aim of my 10-day visit was to collect and swab as many tadpoles, frogs and salamanders as possible. Why, you ask? Tragically, amphibians are being struck down by a fungal plague. In the past 20 years there have been global biodiversity losses, mass mortality events and the extinction of over 200 frog species attributed to chytridiomycosis—a disease caused by the fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). To give you an idea of scale, some researchers are referring to this outbreak as the sixth mass extinction event: something on a par with the dinosaur die-off 66 million years ago in terms of species lost. More recently emerged is its sister pathogen Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal), which is causing the deaths of European fire salamanders in the Netherlands. It’s estimated that populations have declined by nearly 20% per year since 2008, leading Bsal to be described by some as the ‘perfect pathogen’. (more…)

Ten minutes in Beirut: the harsh struggle for health and life facing Middle-Eastern refugees

Beirut, Lebanon
Beirut, Lebanon

20 June is World Refugee Day, and my short morning walk to the American University of Beirut (AUB) provides a daily and grim taste of the global refugee crisis. At 8:50am I take a right out of my Beirut flat onto a bustling and polluted Lebanese street. I live opposite a cheap hotel that hosts medical tourists – Iraqis, mainly – due to crippling of health systems in the region. A quick glance to my left and I’ll see two women outside a supermarket holding babies and pleading with ingoing shoppers for a small bottle of milk. To my right I see a large but flattened cardboard box, knowing this will soon become the cushion for a young mother and her two children. I’ll see them on my way home and I’ll worry about the toddler, who looks thin and tends to wander into the road.

By 8:55am I’m on a steep descend towards the main entrance of AUB. As I pass by a beautifully colourful series of flower shops on my left, I see an elderly man in plain clothes sitting on a white, plastic chair and holding a cup of tea. He has an expressionless face, he has damaged red skin around his ankles, he is obese, and he is silent. We exchange a look and I feel despair; not just for him, but for the nine year old girl who used to be in his place up until April this year. Also silent, she would sit and curiously watch passers go by. She was from Aleppo, a city brought down to its knees in recent years, and she told me her mum wouldn’t let her go to school in Lebanon. I dare not ask the elderly man what happened to her, but let’s not be under illusions – gender-based violence and early marriage are a feature of armed conflicts. (more…)