Tag: Infectious disease

From bakery to benchside: a medical student’s journey in research

The TB Research Centre’s staff and students

It was extremely challenging for me to stare back at the four rejections that faced me. Four rejections from four separate medical schools. Four independent reviewers telling me I was not to be a doctor. I had to endure seemingly unending encouragements and sympathies from friends and family. Their attempts were well-meaning, but often repetitive. My particular favourite was “I believe Edward Jenner didn’t get into medical school the first time round”. This, of course, was a complete fabrication. I think I always had this naïve cockiness about me, an artless assumption that I had the necessary experiences to stroll into medical school. Perhaps rejection had a subduing effect on my ego, though, I probably would presume most of those who know me would thoroughly disagree.

Nevertheless, it occurred to me that I had a year to convince the doctors of now that I could be a doctor of the future. But then I thought again. I had an entire year to do what I wanted. I found myself avoiding medical work of any sort, and take up a job in a bakery. I normally stop here when I want to impress people, to give the impression that I mastered the art of conjuring delicious, enticing pastries. In fact, it is due to my semi-duplicitous nature that many people still think of me as a great baker. But I’m not. In reality, my primary role was to serve customers, clean and wash up (as well as outline the difference between spelt bread and gluten-free bread: a distinction I still don’t understand to this day). It was an enjoyable job, and it provided me with some money to fuel some travelling later on. Moreover, I had the blessing of taking home two full bags of artisan breads untouched by the day’s customers — a perk which became more and more hedonistic as the year went on. (more…)

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…)

TB or not TB? Why tuberculosis remains one of the top 10 causes of death today

Tuberculosis
3D illustration of Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria

I was always a sickly child – when I was eleven years old, doctors injected my forearm with tuberculin in order to check whether my immune system raised a response to the bits and bobs of dead tuberculosis (TB) bacteria in it. If it did, it meant my immune system had already been prodded into battling TB, that is, it had previously encountered or was currently encountering an infection with TB bacteria. The injection site swelled like a furious bee sting, the doctors decided TB was the root cause of all my troubles, and I was intensely medicated for the next six months. My symptoms improved, and I have since evolved (visibly even!) towards the hale and hearty end of the healthiness spectrum.

In retrospect, now that I am medically trained and pursuing a PhD in TB immunology, I can appreciate all that my care team must have had to consider before starting an eleven-year-old child on a rigorous anti-TB treatment based on an educated guess. My symptoms were not typical of classical lung TB, the most common and infectious form of TB, they were mostly gastrointestinal, but then TB has also been known to stitch the gut into uncomfortable knots. My mother had recently been diagnosed with a cold abscess, due to TB of the bone, and though this could not possibly be infectious (based on centuries of observation) it still raised flags as it meant I had a history of contact with a TB patient. I showed an immune response to the tuberculin skin test (TST), but then I had received the BCG vaccine, which is a close relative of TB bacteria. This meant I could elicit a cross-reactive immune response and result in a positive TST even in the absence of TB infection due to the similarity of the two bacteria. (more…)