by Tomasina Lucia (’14 DVM), Global Animal Health Pathway Student

When asked about their “big five,” most travelers to Kenya will regale you with talk of lions, elephants, or Cape buffalo. My big five were a bit different. As part of Washington State University’s Global Animal Health Pathway, I traveled to western Kenya for a six-week clinical rotation in research methods during the winter of my clinical year of veterinary training. After traveling almost 60 hours—with layovers and the time zone shift—to get from wintry Pullman to equatorial Kenya, my days were spent in a remote village called Lwak in the Nyanza Province. I stayed in a two-room cottage, complete with mosquito netting, squat toilet, and (usually!) running water. I was fortunate that Lwak has its own market, where I was able to purchase local fruit and a lot of fish, as the village is only a few kilometers from the shores of Lake Victoria (fun fact, Lake Victoria is the second largest fresh water lake in the world). Along with following community investigators as they surveyed area households, I worked with the project’s animal health team. Instead of snapping pictures of lions and elephants—big game are not historically native to that part of Kenya—my travel photos are mostly of cattle or chickens afflicted with diseases I had previously only seen in textbooks, like foot-and-mouth disease, heartwater, East Coast fever, Newcastle disease, or anaplasmosis.

In collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kenya Medical Research Institute, researchers from WSU’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health have been conducting a survey of 1,500 households in the Nyanza Province since 2013. Through tracking households over the course of years, researchers can identify factors contributing to overall health and welfare. Armed with this research-based quantitative information, impactful intervention points can be developed so that governmental and non-governmental programs—and consequently funding—can be appropriately focused.

My main research goal on the project was to investigate relationships between smallholder livestock production, childhood health, and child intake of high-quality animal source foods. Undernutrition directly impacts 842 million people worldwide. While over the past two decades there has been great effort on the parts of local governments and transnational organizations to alleviate undernutrition, progress in sub-Saharan Africa has stalled, with hunger prevalence actually increasing over the last several years. In addition to negatively impacting growth and health within childhood, undernutrition has farther-reaching consequences into adulthood. Childhood undernutrition has been associated with decreased cognitive performance and increased incidence of non-communicable diseases later in life. Current rural sub-Saharan African diets, like those in Lwak, are notably lacking in proteins and micronutrients derived from animal source foods, like milk, meat, and eggs. These foods have been proven to increase nutritional indices and resistance to disease and decrease incidence of micronutrient deficiencies. Most Lwak households derive their food and income solely from livestock and crop production. So increasing the productivity of livestock production may allow for increased availability of animal source food to children and improved childhood health. However, connections between livestock production, consumption of animal source food, and child health and nutritional indices are complex due to realities like food-borne and zoonotic disease (a disease that travels from animals to people), both of which are increased with closer proximity to livestock.

It may seem strange that a veterinary student would be interested in human, rather than animal, undernutrition. But this area straddling animal production and health and human health is exactly where veterinarians, with our expertise in cross-species physiology and zoonotic disease, can have the most impact. For example, my preliminary research has found that there is a correlation between poultry production in small Nyanza farms and child consumption of eggs; farmers that have more chickens tend to feed their children more eggs. If there were more veterinarians in that area of Kenya, those chickens would have more routine veterinary care and, consequently, decreased incidence of disease. Healthier chickens could produce more eggs and, when slaughtered, would have more meat to provide to children and their families. At this point, you may not think of veterinarians being involved in global food safety or human health. But as more veterinary schools start offering programs in global animal health like we have at WSU I believe the work of veterinarians will have even more of a tremendous impact worldwide.

Tomasina will complete a small animal rotating internship at Cornell University next year and plans to go on to a residency to become board certified in internal medicine. Her long-range plans include a Ph.D. in global infectious disease to eventually work in global animal health. She is originally from Connecticut.