Washington State University researchers want to ensure when the next coronavirus pandemic occurs, medical professionals in Kenya have the training and tools to identify and mitigate the infection as soon as possible.

The WSU Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health (Allen School) has been awarded a nearly $1 million, four-year grant from National Institutes of Health to establish a new interdisciplinary doctoral training program in Nairobi, Kenya.

The new Zoonotic and Emerging Infectious Diseases Training Program will address a significant need by strengthening in-country research capacity for detection and response to zoonotic diseases, meaning those diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

The Allen School is partnering with the University of Nairobi College of Health Sciences, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, and the Kenya Medical Research Institute. The program will leverage the team’s ongoing infectious disease program to identify emerging viruses such as coronaviruses, influenza viruses, Rift valley fever, and currently unknown causes of acute febrile disease and respiratory illnesses.

“Understanding the behavior of zoonotic disease agents, including how they emerge, how long they last, and how they spread to infect humans underlie effective surveillance and response that is critical to addressing emerging infections,” said Guy Palmer, WSU’s senior director of global health. “Specifically, to the case of coronavirus, this program will ensure that Kenya has the best expertise needed for control in their country, protecting Kenyans and ensuring that the country doesn’t serve as a reservoir that continues to reseed viruses back into other nations that currently have it under control.”

By detecting emerging infections and educating students and trainees, the program’s staff protect humans and animals that could become infected or could be at risk of infection, Palmer said.

The training program includes two tracks — one for up to six physicians and veterinarians to earn their PhD and a two-year course program for up to 10 ministerial or government personnel.

While the PhD track is more traditional, the two-year program will take people who already work for Ministry of Health, or Veterinary Services, and provide them with additional expertise while not detracting from their full-time responsibilities.

Kariuki Njenga, who is leading WSU’s COVID-19 response effort in Kenya, together with the Kenya Ministry of Health and the United States’ CDC, said the program is designed to identify and address education gaps.

“The highest priority to strengthen capacity is integrated post-graduate training for clinically-trained individuals through laboratory and field epidemiologic research,” Njenga said. “Medical and veterinary education in Kenya is highly clinically focused, this program complements that clinical expertise.”

Njenga, a native Kenyan who received his Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi, said the program provides in-the-lab experience as well as the opportunity to participate in well-designed field studies.

“This program addresses laboratory training gaps and allows students to conduct field investigations and analyze results and outcomes that cannot be done clinically,” Njenga said.

Walter Jaoko, the lead University of Nairobi investigator on the grant says the university is excited to participate in the program.

“We have been working to strengthen our infectious disease research at the University in order to help the country prepare for the continuous threats of infectious disease pandemics,” Jaoko said. “This program fill a critical gap”

Due to frequent interaction with livestock and wildlife, Kenya is a hot spot for zoonotic diseases.

“Zoonotic pathogen emergence and transmission occurs in regions where domestic animals and wildlife interactions with humans are concentrated,” Palmer said. “All of Sub-Saharan Africa is a hot spot.”

Palmer noted two-thirds of the Kenyan population are farmers and 80 percent of Kenyan farmers own livestock. In addition, wildlife is abundant and as the population increases, interactions between livestock and wildlife increase.

Palmer and Njenga are confident the program, which is currently in the recruitment phase, will meet a priority need to build research capacity in zoonotic and emerging diseases.

Njenga said it goes back to WSU’s One Health mission — the premise that human health is directly tied to the health of animals and the environment.

“Zoonotic diseases are a great example that we are only as healthy as the animals with whom we share the environment,” he said.

Media Contact:

  • Laura Lockard, Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health, laura.lockard@wsu.edu, mobile and WhatsApp +1(206)861-6884