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Using molecular epidemiology to understand and control an endemic zoonosis - Coxiella burnetii in Tanzania

Coxiella burnetii is a bacterial pathogen that causes febrile disease in people and significant production losses in economically crucial livestock species (e.g. cattle, sheep and goats) globally. In northern Tanzania, approximately 5% of patients presenting with febrile illness have acute Q fever (Prabhu et al. 2011). Despite its importance as a leading cause of human and livestock disease, awareness of C. burnetii is low in many regions and there are few diagnostics available, leading to consistent under-recognition of this zoonosis and its impacts on both human and livestock health. As a consequence, key gaps in our knowledge persist about multiple facets of the epidemiology, impacts and scope for control of C. burnetii in sub-Saharan Africa (Salifu et al. 2019).

There is evidence that C. burnetii genotypes vary in their pathogenicity and epidemiology and pilot data indicate the presence of multiple genotypes of C. burnetii in Tanzanian livestock populations. Robust data about the distribution and clinical significance of these genotypes in endemic settings like Tanzania is currently lacking. Vaccines for C. burnetii exist and are used in several European countries but there are limited data available to evaluate the likely efficacy of existing vaccine tools in host populations outside Europe as well as the potential influence of genetic variation in Coxiella strains on vaccine efficacy.

This project involves the development and application of innovative genotyping approaches and quantitative analyses to reveal and characterise the C. burnetii genotypes present in different animal populations and advance our understanding of the fundamental epidemiology of C. burnetii in Tanzania. The project will bring together disciplinary expertise from different institutions to directly address the scheme focus on the design, implementation and evaluation of interventions in the management of animal populations for the primary purpose of controlling zoonotic disease and improving human health.

The research questions that this project proposes to answer are:

  1. Which Coxiella burnetii genotypes are present human, livestock and wildlife populations in Tanzania
  2. What is the relationship between C. burnetii genotype and clinical impact in people and livestock
  3. What are the key transmission routes between species including animal-human transmission.
  4. What are the potential impacts of livestock-targeted interventions such as vaccination to reduce the burden of human and animal disease caused by C. burnetii

This project focuses first on the application of genotyping schemes to generate new diagnostic data and insights into the diversity of C. burnetii. The methodology involves adapting and applying multiple genotyping approaches to characterise the diversity of C. burnetii genotypes in human and animal populations. Laboratory methodologies will include qPCR, multispacer sequence typing and sequence capture to genotype C. burnetii direct from field sample extracts.

The second phase involves the integration of molecular data with serological and epidemiological data from human and animal populations to determine the relationship between genotypes and clinical impact in people and livestock; to use epidemiological, serological and genetic data to infer key transmission processes and thus advance our understanding of the epidemiology of C. burnetii in endemic settings.

In the final phase, existing methodologies for the design and evaluation of interventions will be used to assess the potential effectiveness of livestock-targeted interventions such as vaccination and herd management practices to reduce the burden of human and animal disease caused by C. burnetti.

The collaborative supervisor team bring expertise in diagnostic approaches, quantitative skills, Coxiella epidemiology and intervention evaluation. The team have experience successfully delivering related projects for other important zoonoses (e.g. Brucella and Leptospira) in this setting. The UG project team have a strong track record delivering impactful research projects in northern Tanzania including the design and evaluation of interventions for zoonoses control. The UG team can build on existing collaborative relationships to ensure alignment of project outputs to inform the ongoing development and implementation of zoonoses control policies in Tanzania. Given the worldwide distribution of C. burnetii and its wide-ranging health impacts, this research will have broader impact across bioscience and health disciplines and a broad range of geographies where C. burnetii is endemic.

Refs: Prabhu M, Nicholson WL, Roche AJ, Kersh GJ, Fitzpatrick KA, Oliver LD, Massung RF, Morrissey AB, Bartlett JA, Onyango JJ, Maro VP, Kinabo GD, Saganda W, Crump JA (2011) Q Fever, spotted fever group, and typhus group rickettsioses among hospitalized febrile patients in northern Tanzania. Clin Infect Dis 53: e8-e15. 10.1093/cid/cir411.
Salifu SP, Bukari AA, Frangoulidis D, Wheelhouse N (2019) Current perspectives on the transmission of Q fever: Highlighting the need for a systematic molecular approach for a neglected disease in Africa. Acta Trop 193: 99-105. 10.1016/j.actatropica.2019.02.032

Open to UK, EU and international applicants.

Academic qualifications
Applicants must have obtained, or be about to obtain a first or upper second class UK Honours degree, masters or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science (e.g. Epidemiology, Infectious Disease Ecology, Biology, Microbiology, Public Health or a related discipline/field.)

An interest in the study and control of infectious diseases, laboratory experience and quantitative analytical skills will be considered favourably.

Key facts
Tuition Fee and 4 years' stipend at UKRI rates (estimated to be in the region of £15,245 for 2020/21)
Annual research support budget of £2,000
Travel support costs of £1,000

Application deadline: 12 noon, Monday 13 January 2020

PhD position
University of Glasgow/ University of Edinburgh
Closing date
January 13th, 2020
Posted on
December 7th, 2019 10:42
Last updated
December 7th, 2019 10:42