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Discovering Solutions

WSU tracks emerging diseases in East Africa

Meet Professor Kariuki Njenga, disease detective.

He laughs at the title but says “it’s a pretty accurate description” of the work he and others at Washington State University do in East Africa.

WSU has had a permanent presence in Kenya and Tanzania for about a decade. Together with U.S. and international partners, WSU scientists identify, track and work to control emerging infectious diseases, and find new approaches to combat old diseases.  

Much of WSU’s work in East Africa focuses on zoonotic diseases, which are transmitted from animals to people and cause most new infectious diseases in humans. Rabies, Ebola virus and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are examples.

Kariuki Njenga, Professor, Paul G. Allen School for Global Health

In East Africa, many people are farmers or live near wildlife. There’s also widespread poverty and inadequate health systems. Those factors combine to make the region high-risk for new infectious diseases, and a logical site for WSU research.  

“We need to know what could be coming our way so that we can make vaccines and treatments. That knowledge is absolutely critical in enhancing our preparedness.”

Kariuki Njenga, Professor, Paul G. Allen School for Global Health

“There’s pushback that we shouldn’t go looking for a virus, but that’s a pretty naïve argument,” said Njenga, a professor at the Paul G. Allen School for Global Health in Kenya.

WSU’s projects in East Africa include testing camel herds and herders for MERS, a virus more deadly than Covid-19. In Kenya and Tanzania, researchers are vaccinating dogs against rabies, a disease that’s nearly always contracted through a dog bite and that kills 60,000 people a year worldwide.

Most recently, WSU was chosen by the National Institutes of Health to lead an international research hub in Kenya, one of 10 in a global network that functions as both an early-warning and rapid-response system for new viruses.   

Guy Palmer, WSU’s Senior Director of Global Health and the founding director of the Paul G. Allen School for Global Health, said identifying and controlling virus outbreaks in Africa is a mixture of altruism and self-interest. 

“By understanding an outbreak there, we are aware of the risk so we can begin to screen for it in the United States,” he said.

WSU also has important programs in Kenya and Guatemala to watch for and try to limit antibiotic resistant bacteria, which also helps preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics in the United States.

Njenga said he thinks one of WSU’s most promising projects in East Africa is educating the next generation of infectious disease specialists there.

Under a U.S. National Institutes of Health grant, WSU and the University of Nairobi are offering a doctorate program for medical and veterinary professionals to recognize and respond to newly emerging viruses. Government officials are receiving separate, shorter training to strengthen their skills and knowledge. 

“The current cohort are all Kenyans,” Njenga said. “For the next cohort we want to recruit from East Africa and Kenya. They are trained here and will be retained here.”  

Such programs are making a big difference in East Africa’s ability to respond to emerging diseases. With more experts on the ground, “Within days they can tell us exactly what is happening, what kind of disease there is and how the country can respond,” he said.

Njenga said there are many reasons to be optimistic about the progress that’s been made in combatting infectious diseases, including the rapid development of vaccines and treatments.

Like Palmer, he stressed the importance of cooperative action.

“Within days they can tell us exactly what is happening, what kind of disease there is and how the country can respond.”

Kariuki Njenga, Professor, Paul G. Allen School for Global Health

“This is a global problem, we have to be able to act together globally.”

Kariuki Njenga, Professor, Paul G. Allen School for Global Health

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