Prof. Katharina Stärk: Infectious diseases in animals can pass to humans through one of several different transmission pathways. The most common pathway is transmission through food, because most of us eat animal products such as milk or meat. Also less frequently transmission can occur through direct contact, for example if you have a pet animal or if you have occupational exposure, such as farmers or vets or butchers.
What qualities of the infectious agents – the pathogens – affect whether they can be transmitted between animals and humans?
The biology of pathogens and their structure can affect how they are transmitted. Airborne transmission can be a very effective way of infecting a host, because humans and animals are inhaling air all the time. But very few pathogens use this pathway because it's quite tricky: they have to be airborne for a long time, so they can be only a certain size, and they have to have an effective mechanism of becoming airborne. Also, the entry point is then through inhalation, so the pathogen will get into the lung. But not all pathogens will then be able to establish or penetrate the human body through lung and alveolar tissue.
A lot of the work that you do is quite theoretical, focusing on the development and application of risk assessment techniques in animal disease surveillance programmes. What is the role of risk assessment in a local or national livestock surveillance programme?
Risk assessment can be though of as using common sense in a very systematic way, breaking down a process or a sequence of events into different steps and trying to quantify the probabilities of things going wrong at each step. The combination of risk assessment with surveillance emerged more recently when it became clear that in order to do a risk assessment, you need quite a lot of data. And many of these data come from surveillance programmes.
For example, risk assessment has become essential in the context of international trade. Currently the rules for trading food, particularly animal derived foods, are coordinated by the World Trade Organization WTO. Risk assessment has become the method of choice for importing countries to assess whether there might be undesired consequences if they allow importation of food from another country where they're not quite sure about the safety.
For me though this isn't a theoretical area of work, it's actually something quite practical, because it's informing decisions. So it will always have quite real consequences - if you do a risk assessment you then trade or don't trade, you import or you don't import. So I quite like the real impact side of this sort of work.
Your major role is as senior veterinary public health consultant with consultancy firm SAFOSO in Switzerland, where you run a range of projects with governments, the private sector and the science sector. What would you say is your number one research project with them at the moment?
We don't do our own research so to speak, but instead have a role in enhancing dissemination and exploitation of research results. We aim to make research results accessible and make sure that they are actually used by whoever they could be useful for, that could be industry but also other researchers, other academics, governments, decision makers at different levels. We help to make sure that these results are translated and presented in a way that makes them accessible so as to generate impact as originally intended by the funding body, which is the European Union in most of the big projects in which we are involved.
We currently have three major projects where we work like this, as well as a few smaller projects. We also have one other quite big project that is running over several years, and this is a little bit different because it is mainly about capacity building. In this project we are supporting a country, Mongolia, to address specific animal health and zoonoses issues. We're also helping them to increase their capacity in the veterinary sector generally, so we work with the faculty there to look at their curriculum and how we can improve it.
You also work part time as professor of veterinary public health policy at the Royal Veterinary College, UK. One of the things you’re researching is the pandemic potential of influenza viruses, for example the H5N1 virus that caused bird flu. Your project involves working with several countries across Europe to try to spot viruses in animals that might trigger another flu pandemic in humans. What techniques are you using to identify and control potentially highly infectious viruses?
This project is fascinating. We want to know whether we can use certain indicators or risk factors, both at the virus level but also at the environmental level, to predict or to identify specific influenza viruses that are very likely to cross from animal hosts to human hosts. We are taking into account not just molecular-level risk factors but also where these viruses actually circulate. Are they in a geographical area where this 'species jump' would be favoured by other factors, such as very close interaction between humans and animals?
We are looking at factors related to intensity of farming, farming practices, and size of human and animal populations to produce maps that would indicate with different colours areas where there would be have favourable situations for a species jump. The idea is that people will be able to use these maps to set public health priorities and target surveillance efforts.
It sounds like this is fascinating work. Do you find it easy to recruit young researchers into your projects?
In fact, we find it is increasingly difficult to motivate graduates to engage in a research career. In particular, female researchers remain under-represented. Many universities have, therefore, started to offer mentoring to young colleagues to motivate them to consider research as a career option. This is something I take an active part in, supporting young female veterinarians in doing research alongside clinical practice.
Dear Prof. Stärk, thank you very much for this interesting interview.
Interview: Helen Jaques (© AcademiaNet)