Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute and Kenyan Partners Awarded $5 Million Grant To Prevent Emerging Diseases in Northern Kenya

Five-Year Study of Three Animal-Borne Pathogens Aims to Enhance Local and Global Health Security

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI)’s Global Health Program and partners including the International Livestock Research Institute, Government of Kenya Zoonotic Disease Unit and Turkana Basin Institute have been awarded a five-year, $4.98 million grant to study emerging animal-borne diseases in Northern Kenya. This collaborative, interdisciplinary project, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, seeks to improve understanding of the factors that lead people and animals to contract three high-risk pathogens in the region and use that knowledge to advance Kenya’s capacity to detect, predict and respond to outbreaks.

Illnesses that jump from animals to people, known as zoonotic diseases, cause roughly three-quarters of infectious diseases affecting human health, and, as COVID-19 has made abundantly clear, keeping close tabs on these pathogens is essential to safeguarding human health globally. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the world’s hotspots for emerging pathogens, especially zoonotic diseases. Africa’s estimated 268 million pastoralists—nomadic sheep or cattle farmers—are at particular risk of contracting these pathogens because of their nearly constant contact with both livestock and wildlife as they move their animals across the landscape.

This project will take place across Northern Kenya, including in remote areas that border South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, where the region’s nomadic pastoralists live in rural communities that Dr. James Hassell, one of the grant initiative’s lead investigators and a wildlife veterinarian and epidemiologist for the NZCBI’s Global Health Program, said are “on the fringes of public health-care and health systems.” As well as threatening local health and livelihoods, the lack of disease surveillance and response capacity in these remote communities also poses a risk to the region and potentially the world given its heightened exposure to zoonotic diseases.

“Nairobi is a global transport hub, and it’s only a day’s drive from these areas,” Hassell said. “An undetected outbreak could swiftly turn into a regional or even global problem, and this funding will catalyze our efforts with our Kenyan partners to improve surveillance and response to outbreaks of these emerging pathogens.”

NZCBI’s Global Health Program has been working at the intersection of human and animal health in Kenya for 20 years, and this latest project leverages the relationships developed in that long history to further develop Kenya’s health-care system.

“We’ve known for a long-time that illnesses are emerging from wildlife at an increasing rate. COVID-19 is a clear illustration of what we’re trying to avoid,” said Dr. Suzan Murray, wildlife veterinarian and head of the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program. “The kinds of studies and modeling we’re poised to do in Northern Kenya with our long-standing partners will help us to better predict where and when the next outbreak is likely to come from in the region. The knowledge we gain over the course of this project will not only improve public health in Kenya, but also global health security. It’s vital the progress that flows from this project is lasting and sustainable.”

Kenyan partner organizations include the Kenyan Government’s Zoonotic Disease Unit, the Turkana Basin Institute, the International Livestock Research Institute, the University of Nairobi and the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

“Livestock is a key part of the survival, livelihoods and identity of communities of Northern Kenya and the Greater Horn of Africa,” said Dino J. Martins, CEO of the Turkana Basin Institute. “As a landscape that is undergoing rapid change and immense stress, our ‘One Health’ approach offers a way to integrate science and development. People, livestock, wildlife and the environment are all deeply connected in the rangelands. Understanding how pathogens and vectors are evolving and adapting will offer insights into both improved livestock and human health. The Turkana Basin Institute is pleased to be a partner in this project, and we look forward to helping build further collaboration, training and capacity with our community across Northern Kenya.”

The project focuses on three pathogens that pose serious risks to human and animal health in Northern Kenya: Rift Valley fever virus, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever virus and Francisella tularensis (tularemia). These diseases are challenging to forecast and control because they are spread to humans by animals and blood-feeding arthropods (such as ticks, mosquitoes and fleas), which makes the environmental, epidemiological and human factors that converge to cause outbreaks dynamic and complex.

To achieve its goal of enhancing Kenya’s ability to detect, respond to and predict outbreaks of these three zoonotic diseases in this remote region, the project has four main components: 1) training a workforce of human and animal health-care workers in Kenya who can monitor and respond to emerging diseases in remote regions; 2) a rigorous field study that involves collecting samples from humans, livestock and wildlife to better understand the three pathogens while also characterizing the environmental and anthropological context in which the diseases circulate; 3) using the field-study data to identify and communicate measures that can be taken to reduce pastoralist's risk of exposure, and create new computer models that will allow for improved outbreak forecasting in the near and long term; and 4) working with the Kenyan Government to develop robust policies around surveillance and response for these three emerging diseases.

“Rift Valley fever is one of the most important zoonotic diseases, not only in Kenya but in the Greater Eastern Africa region,” said Mathew Muturi, co-leader of Kenya’s Zoonotic Disease Unit. “Epidemiological studies on priority diseases such as RVF and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever are critical in generating empirical data to guide interventions and policy decisions. In addition, this study will train in-service personnel from epidemic-prone regions of Kenya on biosurveillance and biorisk management which will, in turn, build the early detection and rapid response capacity in the country.”

Additional project partners include the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, University of Florida’s Department of Environmental and Global Health, Georgetown University, the Zoological Society of London and the University of Milan.

NZCBI’s Global Health Program (GHP) was established to address the global trend of increasing health crises facing humans, animals and the environment. GHP is based upon the “One Health” platform, which recognizes that the health of all species—human and nonhuman animals—are inextricably linked to one another and to the environments they share. The GHP team works with international partners and a broad range of experts to combat threats to wildlife, human and ecosystem health by addressing these challenges at their source: the human-wildlife-livestock interface.

This project is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The content of this information does not necessarily reflect the position or the policy of the federal government, and no official endorsement should be inferred.

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI)’s Global Health Program includes a team of highly trained veterinarians and epidemiologists who combine research on ecology and epidemiology to study the connections between environmental change, wildlife and human health at sites across the world. NZCBI leads the Smithsonian’s global effort to save species, better understand ecosystems and train future generations of conservationists. Its two campuses are home to some of the world’s most critically endangered species. Always free of charge, the Zoo’s 163-acre park in the heart of Washington, D.C., features 2,100 animals representing 400 species and is a popular destination for children and families. At the Conservation Biology Institute’s 3,200-acre campus in Virginia, breeding and veterinary research on 250 animals representing 20 species provide critical data for the management of animals in human care and valuable insights for conservation of wild populations. NZCBI’s more than 300 staff and scientists work in Washington, D.C., Virginia and with partners at field sites across the United States and in more than 30 countries to save wildlife, collaborate with communities and conserve native habitats. NZCBI is a long-standing accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) is a non-profit institution helping people in low- and middle-income countries to improve their lives, livelihoods and lands through the animals that remain the backbone of small-scale agriculture and enterprise across the developing world. Specifically, ILRI works with partners to improve food and nutritional security and to reduce poverty and environmental degradation in developing countries through research for efficient, safe and sustainable use of livestock. Employing more than 600 people, including scientists from more than 40 countries, ILRI is a CGIAR research center co-hosted by Kenya and Ethiopia and operates 11 other regional (four) and country (seven) offices across Africa and Asia.

Georgetown University is host to the Center for Global Health Science and Security, a leading academic institution working on applied public health and policy objectives globally. Its scientists have backgrounds in epidemiology, data modeling, biosurveillance reporting structures and national threat and risk reduction approaches.

Kenya Medical Research Institute is mandated by the Government of Kenya to carry out health research in Kenya.

Mpala Research Centre is jointly operated by the Smithsonian, Princeton University, the Kenya Wildlife Service, and the National Museums of Kenya, sits in Laikipia, Central Kenya, where it provides a ‘living rangeland laboratory’ for scientists and students to conduct landscape-level experiments on ecology and health.

The Turkana Basin Institute (TBI), founded by Dr. Richard Leakey, supports and leads science in the Turkana Basin in human origins, paleontology, ecology, evolution, sustainability and other fields. TBI has two campuses in Northern Kenya: along the Turkwel River east of Lodwar in Turkana County and at Ileret south of the Ethiopian border in Marsabit County. In addition, TBI has offices in Nairobi and at Stony Brook University in the United States. Collaboration and community are central to the mission of TBI and scientists and students from Kenya and around the world make use of the facilities.

The University of Nairobi Department of Public Health is located within Kenya’s leading veterinary school.

Since 1969, U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) has provided leading-edge medical capabilities to deter and defend against current and emerging biological threat agents. The Institute is the only laboratory in the Department of Defense equipped to safely study highly hazardous viruses requiring maximum containment at Biosafety Level 4. Research conducted at USAMRIID leads to vaccines, drugs, diagnostics, and training programs that protect both warfighters and civilians. The Institute's unique science and technology base serves not only to address current threats to our Armed Forces, but is an essential element in the medical response to any future biological threats that may confront our nation. USAMRIID is a subordinate laboratory of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command.

The Zoonotic Disease Unit brings together staff from Kenya’s Ministry of Health and Directorate of Veterinary Services under the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock Development and Fisheries, and is mandated to oversee One Health interventions in Kenya.

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