7 November 2011

A UQ researcher has been honoured for his work in developing simple diagnostic tests for devastating human and animal diseases in Africa at the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth.

UQ School of Veterinary Science researcher Dr Zablon Njiru has been trialing simple diagnostic tests for devastating Neglected Tropical Diseases diseases such as Buruli ulcer and Human African Trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) as well as animal trypanosomiasis.

His work in many African countries has been supported by a range of organisations including the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND) based in Geneva, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Vienna, and the UBS Optimus Foundation in collaboration with the Stop Buruli Initiative.

Dr Njiru was presented with the Kenyan Community President Award for Excellence in Research and Development by the Kenyan Foreign Affairs Minister, Hon Moses Wetangula, in the presence of the Kenyan government CHOGM delegates, the Kenyan community in Western Australia and Australian representatives.

He said he was delighted to receive the award and to also have had an opportunity to meet Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki the following day with other Kenyans. "While addressing Kenyans living in Western Australia, the President stressed the need for diaspora population to contribute back home," he said.

Sleeping sickness is transmitted by tsetse flies carrying the parasite and affects thousands of people in around 36 African countries. The disease occurs in two stages: Stage I which occurs in blood and Stage II where the parasite passes into the central nervous system causing sensory disturbances, poor coordination and, if left untreated, death.

Buruli ulcer disease is caused by a bacteria and infection often leads to extensive destruction of skin and soft tissue exposing the bone. The disease occurs in Australia, Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Western Pacific. Delayed treatment can cause irreversible deformity, skin lesions and life-threatening secondary infections.

The tests under trial by Dr Njiru involve boiling of blood or tissue samples, mixing them with the reaction recipe and incubating it in boiling water or heating pads for 30 minutes with the resultant colour indicating whether a particular disease is present. Further, his work involves trialing the test for the presence of the parasite in fly populations to determine the best use of eradication programs.

The criteria for a "simple diagnostic test" is that it must be affordable, sensitive, specific, user-friendly (simple to perform in a few steps with minimal training), robust and rapid (results available within an hour), equipment-free and deliverable to the end user.

"It is a challenge to develop a diagnostic test that meets these performance criteria for resource-poor endemic areas. However, with the pace of development in the technology we are using and support from philanthropic groups and other funding agencies, it is most likely that in the next five years, we will have specific tests for sleeping sickness, Buruli ulcer disease, among others," Dr Njiru said.

Dr Njiru said both human and animal trypanosomiasis resulted in losses of more than $4.5 billion annually to the economies of sub-Saharan Africa from lost farm income and increased malnutrition. "Trypanosomes also cause high death rates in horses and camels and loss of production in water buffaloes in Asia. Therefore for us to treat and guide correctly, we must diagnose accurately," he said.

Media: Dr Njiru (0404 522 785) or z.nijiru@uq.edu.au or Shirley Glaister on 07 3365 2802 or s.glaister@uq.edu.au.