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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge
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With the support of the Cambridge Global Food Security Early Career Researcher Travel Fund, veterinarian and PhD student Chioma Achi conducted field research on antimicrobial resistance in Nigeria in January and February 2020. She visited farms and selected slaughterhouses, and conducted interviews to gather her data. Find out how she had to combine her scientific planning with good time management and communication skills in order to complete her project.

I am from Nigeria, and in 2017 I was awarded the prestigious and highly competitive Cambridge Trust/Cambridge-Africa PhD Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge. My doctoral research focuses on using genomic techniques and the application of bioinformatics skills to answer questions on antimicrobial resistance and food safety. I am currently in the third year of my PhD, and the laboratory aspect of my work takes place in the Coombs lab situated within the Department of Veterinary Medicine.

I qualified as a Veterinarian in 2006 from Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Nigeria and then worked as a small animal clinician at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital of Usmanu Danfodiyo University Sokoto, Nigeria, for a period of five years. In 2012, I completed an MSc in Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology with distinctions from the University of Westminster London. This was through a fully funded scholarship award that I won from a British Council innovation 360 competition. Between 2012 and 2017, I worked as a lecturer of public health and preventive medicine in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Usmanu Danfodiyo University Sokoto (I am currently on study leave from the University). There, I taught courses on food safety, zoonoses and antimicrobial resistance. I am interested in antimicrobial resistance because my research can be applied in the improvement of public health and the provision of information that will enable the preservation of available effective antimicrobials. I chose to do my research at the University of Cambridge because of the excellent research support it provides, and the expertise it has in this area.

I am investigating the evidence of transmission of antimicrobial resistance in Salmonella species recovered from people, poultry and the environment. One in ten people will acquire foodborne infections, and Salmonella is a bacterium that commonly causes such infections in people. Some of the people that get infected with Salmonella will recover within a few days, sometimes without treatment, but a proportion will need to be treated with antibiotics. Unfortunately, many studies have shown that a lot of these bacteria no longer respond to antibiotic treatment. These bacteria carry resistant genes that have been found in foods as well as the environment, animals and people. Unfortunately, constant interactions between the environment, animals and people means that resistant genes can be easily passed between different hosts and the environment. If we have to tackle these resistant genes and preserve our available antibiotics, then we must first understand what types of bacteria we have in circulation, the human and animal population structure, and the ability of these bacteria to jump from one host to another. This information will enable countries to develop their antimicrobial guidelines based on what works for them, and what type of resistant genes they have in circulation. It will also serve as information for physicians and healthcare workers to administer treatment based on the antibiotics that the bacteria are susceptible to.

My research is relevant to food security because antibiotic resistant pathogens such as Salmonella pose a serious concern for public health, and have severe implications for food security. Unsafe food is a threat to global public health and the global economy, because countries will be reluctant to trade with countries where food safety cannot be guaranteed. This will decrease the likelihood of affected countries participating in international trade. Additionally, animals that carry resistant bacteria are very likely to have reduced productivity, and if there are no effective antibiotics to treat resistant infections in animal hosts, it might also lead to large-scale mortality in animal populations. These factors can negatively affect the livelihoods of those who depend on them, such as farmers and agricultural extension workers. When resistant bacteria find their way into the human food chain, it could also cause severe problems in those affected, and lead to them depleting their savings on medical treatment.  

The GFS Early Career Researcher Travel Fund 2019 enabled me to visit selected slaughterhouses, and pig and poultry farms in Kaduna and Plateau States, Nigeria. The farm visits were designed to evaluate risk factors for acquiring antibiotic resistant pathogens, and to assess the knowledge, attitude and practice of antimicrobial use and misuse through interviews. Through these visits, I was better able to match the results I was getting from the laboratory to what was happening in the locations I visited. One of the reasons for this investigation was to see whether the number of resistant genes resulted from farm antimicrobial usage, and if animal husbandry practices affected the way that farmers used antibiotics. We also wanted to know what conditions motivated the farmers to use antibiotics on their animals, for how long they used them, and whether these antibiotics were administered by a veterinarian or whether the farmers self-medicated the animals. The visits gave us the opportunity to speak one-on-one with the farmers, encouraging them to use antimicrobials only when necessary. Some of the farmers and slaughterhouse workers additionally had the opportunity to reflect on their farm and work practices, and it is our hope that the interactions we had with them can serve as a basis for the improvement of their existing practices. I also met with the Director of Veterinary Services, and staff from the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Health from the state government. They assisted tremendously with putting me in touch with the farms and slaughterhouses.

Although not very easy, I was able to leverage on my previous contacts to get in touch with those in authority that could give me the needed permissions. I contacted former classmates and colleagues who currently work in the area, and asked them for any useful contacts that they had in the ministries. This is because sending letters from a distance and following up on them may take a long while. Communication via email did not work so well, so I had to make frequent phone calls to get in touch with people. It is useful to note that some people will not spring into action to establish contacts for you until you arrive physically. Due to my limited time in Nigeria, upon arrival I had to be proactive in making phone calls and booking appointments, I had to follow up with every person that I needed to work with, and I had to send reminders hours before any meeting. The key was to be persistent in a nice way, bearing in mind the differences in work culture between the regions. Once you have these in place, every other thing follows. Also, bear in mind that the farmers and workers might have worked with some of these contacts in the past, so they are more likely to listen and cooperate with you compared to if you visited them on your own.

Since we needed to get as much information on antimicrobial usage and farm/slaughterhouse practices as we could, I had to design semi-structured questionnaires. Considering language barriers, I kept in mind the need to translate any technical words in the local language in a way that would not water down the information we hoped to get. I worked with people that understood both English and the local languages to do this. This meant that the farmers/workers were more receptive to us, and could communicate freely without barriers. It also meant that we were able to get as much information as possible. Unfortunately, some of the farmers did not keep proper records of their antimicrobial usage, so we relied on the availability of used medicine containers or sachets even though they might not have given us a true picture of previous antimicrobial use.

My interactions with rural farmers provided more insight into the magnitude of the problem surrounding antimicrobial resistance. I gathered that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of creating awareness, and in helping the farmers understand the implications that antimicrobial resistance has on animal and human health. The visits to the slaughterhouses also revealed the need for government action in terms of upgrading existing facilities to ensure proper hygiene, and thus the safety of people who depend on meat from such environments. I also note the importance of regular educational programs to slaughterhouse and farm workers in local languages to constantly drive home the importance of food safety.

I am now collating the data from this trip, and will be writing up a manuscript for publication. I also hope to take the contacts and connections formed during the trip into future projects on my research on antimicrobial resistance and food safety.

I learnt a number of things from this trip. First, that people take you more seriously when you show up physically, and that planning a project with some collaborators can be slow via email (depending on the region and accessibility to internet) because they might be more used to face-to-face interactions or phone calls. Second, farmers and slaughterhouse workers are often more welcoming and receptive when you are accompanied by a familiar face, or when you have been referred by someone in their association. The farmers that I visited were especially keen on finding out what they could do to better their farming systems or improve productivity. They value feedback, and will be more comfortable if you show some interest in their animals, or provide strategies that can help them improve their farming practices. Third, do not assume that everyone will be as keen as you are about your project. You need to follow up on any tasks, and try to come up with friendly strategies to ensure proper monitoring when you assign responsibilities. Debriefing at the end of the day tends to work well too, and it keeps the team spirit high.

You also need to build on existing networks and treat people well, not just because you want your project to be successful but because the way you treat them might affect the way that they respond to other researchers in future. Take your time to find out and understand any cultural differences, and ask questions to know how best to approach certain issues. When you are done with your project and have returned to your location, do find time to send a message to say thank you and appreciate them for the help and support given. This will make everyone feel very valuable and happy.  

Please find Chioma's profile on our website.

Photo supplied by Chioma Achi (front). Photo taken with support staff and animal health superintendents during a field visit to pig farms in Bassa Local Government Area of Plateau State.