Green leaves in rainforest

Environmental Management

Each year, waterborne diseases like typhoid fever kill more children around the world than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. These diseases are the second leading cause of death for children under five.

Researchers from Edith Cowan University are at the forefront of the fight against these diseases in the IndoPacific Region, with a focus on the island-nation of Fiji.

Unlike traditional medical research, the team from ECU’s School of Science is intent on making a positive impact on human health through environmental management.

Traditional approaches have focussed on the human aspect of the diseases, ignoring environmental and social factors. But they’re just not working.

A growing problem in a changing climate

Outbreaks of waterborne diseases are increasingly common in Fiji and other developing countries and they’re being amplified by changing ecological conditions.

Severe weather events are becoming more frequent as the world’s climate changes and those weather events, like tropical cyclones and monsoonal downpours, often trigger outbreaks of disease.

Since 2005 there have been more than 20 typhoid outbreaks in Fiji, as well as major occurrences of other water-related diseases, such as dengue fever and leptospirosis.

Those outbreaks are significant public health challenges following tropical cyclones, where the consequent widespread damage to the environment and infrastructure place further strain on local health systems.

Waterborne diseases are the second leading cause of death for children under five.
Since 2005 there have been more than 20 typhoid outbreaks in Fiji

Balancing environment and human health

Dr Aaron Jenkins from ECU’s School of Science says his research is about working in a balanced way by managing the environment, preserving biodiversity and making a difference in the health and well-being of local communities.

“One hundred years ago, in scientific circles, it was really trendy to search for typhoid in the environment, but most research is now focussed on treating the disease in people,” he said.

We’re hoping to change the way communities and policy makers think about preventing outbreaks of infectious diseases.

“We’re hoping to change the way communities and policy makers think about preventing outbreaks of infectious diseases.”

Dr Jenkins’ work is primarily concentrated on Fiji but has application across low- and middle-income countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

Those countries are particularly affected by water-borne diseases like typhoid and leptospirosis, along with vector-borne diseases carried by animals like mosquitoes, for example dengue fever.

“These water-related diseases are particularly affected by environmental conditions and change,” Dr Jenkins said.

In the case of typhoid fever, that means looking at how deforestation, erosion and flooding in river basins can lead to an increase in the number of cases in surrounding areas.

Global recognition

Dr Jenkins research has attracted global attention from major charitable groups and funding institutions.

While still studying as a postgraduate student at ECU, Dr Jenkins was invited to present his research to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr Jenkins was invited to present his research to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

That presentation helped facilitate the calling of a Global Grand Challenge to investigate environmental niches of typhoid.

Of the 1500 applications for funding as part of that challenge, just 10 were accepted and Dr Jenkins is an investigator on three of them.

Dr Jenkins is also a key researcher on several large, international grants from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Wellcome Trust and UNICEF.

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