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Louise Mitchell describes how Dr Christina Faust and colleagues at the University of Glasgow have developed a portable field laboratory that can be deployed quickly in areas with vector-borne diseases.

Banner image for Improving the point of care for vector based diseases by introducing field-based labs in Uganda.

The research team in Uganda

Photo caption: The research team processes rodent samples at a field site in Mayuge district, Uganda in preparation for molecular analyses of infected tissues.

Diseases spread by vectors such as mosquitos, ticks and fleas, are a significant public health concern in Uganda. Known as vector-borne diseases they tend to affect poor, rural communities more acutely, as these communities have limited access to health care, inadequate means of prevention, and poor control measures.

Some vector-borne diseases are maintained by a complex combination of non-human host species and are often present at low intensities. This can make detection difficult and the identification of successful interventions more complicated. Researchers at the University of Glasgow are working to investigate and understand the role of non-human hosts in the transmission of schistosomiasis (Schistosoma species) and acute Human African Trypanosomiasis (rHAT) (Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense), also known as sleeping sickness.

Researchers at the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health & Comparative Medicine have developed a portable field laboratory that can be deployed quickly in areas in which these diseases are found. This allows for rapid diagnosis and point of care treatments and interventions.

Funding from the University of Glasgow’s GCRF Small Grants Fund was used to purchase equipment for the field laboratories and to improve local laboratory facilities for studying schistosomiasis and trypanosomiasis, two important vector-borne zoonoses in Uganda that can be spread from non-human hosts (termed zoonotic diseases).

The results from the field laboratory were validated in labs in Kampala and found to be 100% accurate. The Coordinating Office for Control of Trypanosomiasis in Uganda (COCTU) also successfully diagnosed rHAT from field-collected samples that previously required month-long delays in diagnosis. Significantly the research on zoonotic schistosomiasis identified Schistosoma parasites in rodents in Uganda for the first time.

The research team have worked in partnership with COCTU; the Vector Control Division (VCD) of the Ugandan Ministry of Health, and Makerere University to improve the capacity for molecular analysis in the country, and more specifically, at the point of collection. Introducing this state-of-the-art technology ensures full analyses can be performed within the country and reduces significant delays and costs of exporting samples to be analysed abroad.

In addition to purchasing the equipment, the funding supported training for VCD and COCTU personnel in these technologies. Twelve individuals were trained over five cumulative weeks of intensive laboratory clinics, including two weeks at field sites. All participants have developed skills to deploy these technologies for endemic diseases which could be adapted to address a diversity of pathogens and outbreak situations.

As a result of this project, a new collaboration between COCTU and the University of Glasgow has been established. COCTU is using the new equipment to start building a new resource centre in Jinja which will act as the primary animal surveillance lab as Uganda moves towards elimination of schistosomiasis. The University of Glasgow is currently working on grant applications to support longer term research on surveillance of zoonoses.