By Phil Hefford, MSc Medical Microbiology 2012-13. During a whirlwind final week to the first term of Graduate Medical School, I find myself presenting amongst passionate early career researchers at a Royal Society conference, and reminded of the challenges we face in the complex field of Tropical Medicine.
A little over two years ago I was drifting on a narrow-boat through the Mekong Delta, taking a weekend break from a project which would, ultimately, alter my view of what global health really means. Surrounded by communities living by riverbanks on the peripheries of forestland, in animal-related occupations that are known to facilitate pathogen spillover events, it was impossible to overlook the relevance of the project I was involved in. Just two years later, we have lived through the biggest Ebola-Virus outbreak in history, failed to get any headway on Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, seen increased transmission of Zika Virus in South America and been perplexed by a colossal epidemic of Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease Virus spreading across South-East Asia.
Is it all doom and gloom? Hell no, and we’ve got some game changing thinkers and doers to thank, not to mention the local community members who often serve as both teacher and implementer of interventional strategies.
That the scientific and clinical community were able to deliver a hugely successful vaccine against Ebola is an incredible achievement in and of itself. The hope is that this represents a turning point in how medical research is conducted during an outbreak, and galvanise future responses to outbreaks before they spiral out of control. Behind the big scenes, however, are models of medical research that are changing the paradigm of disease surveillance, by combining clinical data, epidemiology, next generation sequencing of pathogens which are picked up, alongside the social sciences – taking into account behavioural and demographic risks for infection; particularly for those populations considered at “high risk”. The ultimate aim, of-course, is to detect pathogens circulating in animal reservoirs and across human populations before big “spillover” events occur; enabling us to prepare our responses for future epidemics or even better, to stop them from happening in the first place.
This week I was honoured to present my own small involvement, through my School Master’s Project, to peers; looking at bats as a reservoir for a type of virus similar to the SARS virus which affected 29 different countries in 2002-2003, with one such ongoing project based in Vietnam. Honoured, not simply because this was a conference amongst fellow young, passionate, early career researchers held by the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene, but also because I find the Vietnam initiative so audacious, so inspiring, so collaborative and so full of vision that I feel compelled to learn more and keep on going.
The conference was Global in content, with a Keynote Speech on the challenges facing adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa in curbing HIV incidence, talks on leptospirosis in the Philippines and the impact of conflict on Leishmaniasis prevalence, alongside posters featuring current worldwide research. These woes are complex in nature and need a collective approach to address them. As fluffy as this may sound, being part of an initiative which is rapidly earning a name for itself in the field of pandemic prevention gives me the sense that such challenges can be overcome.
A day to reflect on my own experiences, as well as hearing new ideas and experiences across the wide spectrum of Tropical Medicine and International Health, was a perfect end to a fun-filled first term in Graduate Medical School and a joyful prelude to a Christmas in the Philippines, surrounded by family.
Oh! And of-course, winning the First Prize made the experience all the more sweeter!
(This post is adapted from my main personal blog – www.philandtropical.com)