Half a million pounds awarded to study sustainable food sources and human-health in Africa

Tuesday 2 April 2019


Major funding body awards half a million pounds to the University of St Andrews to develop cutting-edge collaborative research on fisheries and human-health on Lake Victoria in Africa.

The Royal Society has awarded Professor Andrew Brierley from the School of Biology the grant for a period of 30 months to conduct research in collaboration with the Tanzanian National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) and the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation (LVFO). The research will develop and improve methods for fish stock assessment, in the hope that well managed fisheries can be a sustainable food source and explore the possibility that fish play a role in reducing human infection from parasites in the Lake. The multi-disciplinary research will explore the vital connection between human-health and fisheries, tackling infection and sustainability on Lake Victoria.

Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest lake and has one of the largest freshwater fisheries globally. Some 35 million people in the Lake Victoria basin depend directly and indirectly on fish and fishing for food and livelihood. LVFO coordinates fisheries research between the three countries that border Lake Victoria: Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

Schistosomiasis, or bilharzia, is a parasitic infection of humans that is prevalent in communities living in poverty in close connection with insanitary water. Infection occurs when the tiny larval stage of the parasitic worm, which lives in fresh water, emerges from host snails and burrows through human skin. The infection is not immediately fatal to humans but is debilitating and can prevent people from working. Infected people excrete parasite eggs and, if sewage treatment is lacking, the eggs enter the lake, hatch and enable reinfection of host snails. Schistosomiasis is classified as a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD), a diverse group of tropical infections which are common in low-income populations in developing regions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It infects millions of people globally and is second in sub-Saharan Africa only to malaria. Because it is a disease of poverty it has not received the attention, or funding, it deserves.

Professor Brierley said: “Fish eat the snails that are the host to part of the schistosomiasis life cycle. It is possible that fishing on Lake Victoria has reduced fish numbers and that that in turn has reduced fish-predation on snails and led to increasing snail abundance. More snails may cause higher human infection.

“The idea of the newly-funded research is to look for associations between snail numbers, fish stocks, and rates of human schistosomiasis infection amongst communities living beside Lake Victoria in Tanzania.”

Lake-Victoria-research-002The research will be conducted in conjunction with the Vine Trust, an Edinburgh-based charity that operates a medical support ship on Lake Victoria, the ‘Jubilee Hope’, that has long-standing connections to remote Tanzanian villages with different levels of schistosomiasis infection.

If the research determines that there are lower infection rates in villages on the shore next to parts of the Lake that have higher fish abundance, this might be a route to ‘biocontrol’ of snails. By increasing fish numbers, through establishment of zones closed to fishing, snail numbers may therefore be reduced.

In Senegal boosting populations of river prawns, that are predators of schistosomiasis snails, has had a dramatic improvement on human infection. An additional potential benefit of a proposed fish biocontrol for Lake Victoria is that increased fish in closed areas may lead to more widespread fish abundance, which will be a contribution to food security. In the marine realm, ‘spill over’ of fish from no-take Marine Protected Areas has improved fish catches outside MPAs.

Professor Brierley and his team have been working for the past 18 months with colleagues from LVFO to improve methods for fish stock assessment, in the hope that well managed fisheries can be a sustainable food source. This has included running training sessions for African researchers in Jinja, Uganda, and in St Andrews.

The research grant is part of the UK’s Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF). The GCRF objective is to deliver overseas aid via cutting-edge research, and to address the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The goals include ending poverty and hunger, promoting good health and well-being, and addressing consequences of climate change.

Photo captions

Top: Professor Andrew Brierley (right, sunglasses) teaching at Lake Victoria

Bottom: Dr Robert Kayanda (left) and Professor Safari Kinung'hi examine snails

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

Category Research

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