NRI’s Professor of rats, Steve Belmain, is part of a team recently awarded £2 million to investigate rat control and management and to reduce the transmission risk of several rodent-borne diseases, particularly plague, leptospirosis and typhus.
The money has been awarded by the UK Research and Innovation Global Challenges Research Fund and is for interdisciplinary research that addresses wider contextual factors contributing to the burden of infectious diseases.
Although rodents are not involved in the current Covid-19 pandemic, they have been responsible for many global pandemics in the past caused by diseases such as plague and hantavirus.
Even today, rodents continue to be a source of many diseases affecting people and livestock and can cause widespread disruption to health care systems.
A plague outbreak in Madagascar in 2017–18 caused panic in the capital city and other urban areas through widespread human-to-human pneumonic transmission. Outbreaks of Lassa fever have been increasingly severe in Nigeria for the past few years; Lassa fever can kill one in every five people infected and it mainly infects young adults. The recent global shutdown as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak demonstrates just how quickly killer viruses can spread.
“This research is important on many levels”, says Professor Belmain, “rats don’t just spread disease; they damage farmers’ crops, they eat and contaminate stored food supplies and can ruin all sorts of personal possessions such as clothes, blankets and mosquito nets in rural farming communities across Africa.”
This new project, entitled ‘Developing effective rodent control strategies to reduce disease risk in ecologically and culturally diverse rural landscapes’, will see Professor Belmain work closely with a multidisciplinary team of natural and social scientists from the UK (University of Aberdeen, University of St. Andrews and University of Greenwich) with collaboration with colleagues from Tanzania (Sokoine University of Agriculture, Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences) and Madagascar (Pasteur Institute, Association Vahatra).
Professor Belmain and the team will be embracing new technology to increase their understanding of the movement of rodents between agricultural areas and households; he explains: “we will be using new innovations in low-energy Bluetooth transmitters, as well as working with communities to understand how human behaviours and practices may be putting them at risk of acquiring rodent-borne diseases.”
By working with communities in Tanzania and Madagascar, the research team aims to develop sustainable rodent management practices that can reduce disease transmission risks as well as increase other livelihood benefits to food and nutrition security and overall environmental health.