We have just finished the 3-day meeting for the Urban Zoo project – which involved updates and conversation on all elements on the project – a trip to one of the study sites and a meeting of the steering group, who were acting as ‘critical friend’ to the project. The final day involved the team responding to that challenge and discussions around the management of the project moving forward. It was a really helpful meeting that highlighted the innovative approaches of this project – working towards the vision of the ESEI initiative: “The establishment of truly interdisciplinary teams of researchers, conducting high quality state-of-the-art innovative research, addressing national/international research priorities that will inform and impact on policy and practice.”
The URBANZOO project seeks to explore whether urbanization really poses a risk of emerging disease and, if so, how? Without this information it is very difficult for policy makers to do anything practical to mitigate risks that urbanization poses.
The project involves experts in a wide range of relevant subjects investigating this issue in the specific context of urban livestock keeping in Nairobi, Kenya. The URBANZOO team (which now numbers 65 individuals), is investigating the association between livestock keeping and diarrhoeal disease in children, but is also tackling the broader question of how the presence of livestock affects the microbial ecology of the city: how are the microbial floras of humans, livestock, other animals (such as rodents and birds) and the wider environment related? They are doing this, using a well studied, and understood model organism – Escherichia coli. They look to determine the ‘microbial footprint’ of urban livestock and to understand whether this footprint extends to the human population. It is proposed that the emergence of novel pathogens are most likely to occur via the same routes by which humans become exposed to known microbes.
At the same time, the team is undertaking a series of social and economic studies – centred on the concept of the ‘value chain’ (which places supply chains in their socio-economic context) – which will examine the drivers of urban livestock keeping, relate these to other sources of livestock products, and explore how practices are related to supply and demand. It is intended that this will provide insight into how the risks are likely to change in the future as urban livestock keeping becomes more widespread and food security more challenging, not just in Nairobi but worldwide. Finally, the outputs will be related to policy development: legislation regarding livestock keeping in Nairobi is changing and this study will provide supporting evidence for the potential effectiveness of new regulations, balancing public health risks with the need for food security and income.