“Worth a million lectures”

August 21, 2015
Jill Pease

In communities in and around Kisumu, Kenya, examples of the link between human, animal and environmental health are easy to spot. Clean water and adequate sanitation can be scarce and chickens and goats roam freely before being brought into homes in the evening.

A group of graduate students from the department of environmental and global health in the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions recently saw the challenges firsthand when they conducted field work in the Kisumu area, working alongside students of Great Lakes University of Kisumu, as part of UF’s One Health certificate program.

“What we saw was worth a million lectures,” said Bahareh Keith, a master’s student in One Health and a UF Health pediatric physician, pictured above with UF graduate student Makyba Charles and Great Lakes University of Kisumu student Martha Onyango processing fish samples collected from Lake Victoria. “The connection between animals, humans and the environment is glaring here. They are inseparably entwined and the effects on health become easy to see.”

The One Health approach recognizes the connection between the health of people, animals and the environment and seeks to bring together expertise in public health, veterinary medicine and environmental health to solve complex health problems. The University of Florida is one of the first institutions in the world to offer academic programs in One Health, including master’s and doctoral degrees in addition to the certificate.

“I don’t think there’s a single other field course in environmental health or One Health, that has this level of hands-on engagement and partnerships with communities and local students. I think it’s unparalleled,” said instructor Richard Rheingans, an associate professor in the department of environmental and global health and the UF Center for African Studies.

Rheingans began working with Great Lakes University of Kisumu, known as GLUK, nearly a decade ago on a study of school-based water and sanitation improvements. He felt the institution’s mission of training students to work with communities to enable them to overcome their own development challenges would provide a valuable perspective for UF students.

“At Great Lakes University of Kisumu, we believe that communities have the ability to solve their own problems. This is enhanced by building their capacities through partnerships,” said Kevin Achola, a lecturer in environmental health and epidemiology at GLUK. “Students benefit by looking, listening and learning from the communities they are exposed to.”

In turn, “UF brings the research experience for our students a notch higher with laboratory skills” in microbiology, monitoring for particulate matter, DNA sequencing and more, says Jane Mumma, dean of the Tropical Institute of Community Health and Development at GLUK.

During the two-week field course, UF students collaborated with GLUK students to identify One Health issues and collect samples for analysis. Bahareh Keith and Makyba Charles, a doctoral student in environmental and global health, worked with a pair of GLUK students to test lake and farmed fish for the presence of bacteria.

“This experience would have not been as valuable and productive without the collaboration with GLUK,” Charles said. “Coming into an established community with unspoken rules and hierarchies can lead to a steep learning curve. Working with local residents and trusted establishments facilitated an increase in our credibility and our ability to make meaningful scientific contributions.”

Rheingans hopes that future One Health field work experiences in Kisumu also include UF students in other disciplines, such as veterinary medicine, social sciences, medicine, engineering and business.

“UF is unique because it has all of these different disciplines and One Health problems require interdisciplinary understanding and creative, diverse and innovative solutions,” he said. “There are very few institutions that have the breadth of expertise that UF does.”

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