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Slum farming and superbugs—An ‘Urban Zoo’ science project tracks bacterial routes in complex environments


Animals in a Nairobi slum (via Africa Slum Journal).

‘The next superbug could emerge from the slums of the developing world, researchers warn.

‘Rapid, unplanned growth in many urban areas has people, livestock and wildlife living in close proximity and with inadequate sanitation. These are ideal conditions for microbes to evolve and spread.

‘So a major project is underway, designed to shed light on how microbes move through the slums of Nairobi and beyond.

‘It’s known as the Urban Zoo project. “Zoo” is short for zoonosis, the spread of diseases from animals to humans. From salmonella to swine flu, that’s how we get most of our diseases.

‘But “zoo” also suggests the menagerie of creatures found in Nairobi’s slums that could carry those diseases.

Fenced in by sheets of rusting corrugated metal in Nairobi’s Viwandani neighborhood, Joseph Mwai and his family share a couple thousand square feet with three cows, a handful of chickens, about a dozen goats and a small herd of pigs.

These are far from optimal conditions for raising livestock. But Mwai says he doesn’t have much of a choice.

“It’s important to me because I don’t have any job to do,” he said. “I make a living from them.”

‘A garbage dump smolders behind Mwai’s tiny homestead, across a stream polluted with raw sewage. People, goats and Marabou storks pick through the trash side by side, looking for anything useful or edible. Plastic bags are pulled from the heaps, rinsed in the contaminated river and resold.

‘It’s a rich environment for the spread of bacteria and other microbes.

‘The Urban Zoo project is watching one microbe in particular: E. coli. . . . But scientists know very little about how any bacteria move through this complex environment.

So the Urban Zoo project is visiting 99 households across Nairobi, rich and poor, with livestock and without. They’re taking samples from people, their animals, and whatever wildlife they can find nearby (and catch): storks, mice, bats, et cetera. They’re sampling the ground around homes, yards and livestock pens with white paper booties.

‘The aim, says University of Liverpool veterinarian Judy Bettridge, is “to try and understand on a small scale how those bacteria are shared” among each household’s people, livestock and environment. “And then when we scale it up, are the bacteria here being shared with the household that’s 50 meters over there? Or 100 meters over there? So, how far can they actually spread?” . . .

‘Another question is the role that food plays in spreading those bacteria. Mwai’s city livestock are one small part of the vast network that delivers meat, milk and eggs throughout Nairobi.

‘The Urban Zoo project is mapping those routes. In this modernizing East African capital, that includes everything from shiny, modern supermarkets to grimy street-food stalls. . . .

Ultimately, the Urban Zoo project aims to provide evidence that will help policymakers improve conditions in Nairobi’s slums. . . .

Read the whole article, and view two films, by Steve Baragona at Voice of America (VOA): Scientists study slums for signs of spreading superbugs, 23 Dec 2015.

Read a related article by Paolo Cravero on the IIED blog: Mapping for food safety: How and why communities in Nairobi’s informal settlements are creating and using maps to ensure their food and the people who sell it are safe, 21 Dec 2015 (see excerpts below).

‘A red balloon more than a metre in diameter rises above tin roofs in Mathare, one of Nairobi’s biggest informal settlements. As the balloon’s handler walks through the narrow alleyways, a camera dangling from the balloon snaps a photo every second. This eye in the sky is helping the community identify and deal with threats to their daily food supplies.

‘The balloon is just one part of a mapping project led by community members and Muungano wa Wanavijiji, a federation of Kenyan slum-dwellers’ associations with support from partners in the Urban Zoo project.

By creating the first maps to show food kiosks, mobile street vendors and hazards such as rubbish dumps and open sewers, the project is helping ensure that both food and the people who sell it are safe.

Find out more about the Urban Zoo, a flagship project of the Zoonotic and Emerging Disease Group (ZED), which is led by Eric Fèvre, a scientist based in Nairobi, Kenya, on joint appointment at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), where he also supports the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH), and the Institute of Infection and Global Health (IGH), at the University of Liverpool.

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