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FoodBioSystems DTP - Assessing food-borne risks of Toxocara infection in support of public health and food quality assurance

Project Description


The neglected parasitic disease toxocariasis, caused by infection with the roundworm Toxocara, is an increasing public health concern. There is growing evidence for clinical and subclinical impacts of toxocariasis, for example through neurological and respiratory disease and impaired cognitive development. Seroprevalence studies suggest a significant burden of human infection worldwide and it is likely that many cases go unreported. Human infection has traditionally been thought to arise primarily from contact with soil contaminated by Toxocara eggs shed in the faeces of infected dogs, cat and foxes. Intriguingly, a wide range of animal species can also act as transport hosts for Toxocara, and this includes livestock. For example, up to 47% of sheep in the UK, have tested positive for specific anti-Toxocara antibodies. This raises the possibility of meatborne transmission. Beyond some case reports linked to consumption of undercooked bird liver, however, this route has largely been ignored in public health risk assessments. Furthermore, contamination of vegetables with Toxocara eggs but as yet the level of hazard has not been investigated.

The aim of this project is to examine the risks of meat-borne, vegetable and soil transmission of Toxocara, and apply surveillance data and epidemiological modelling to evaluate appropriate intervention strategies. The project will involve a serological survey of UK livestock at slaughter for anti-Toxocara antibodies, testing of meat for presence of Toxocara DNA and viable larvae, tracing of sources of infections to farms of origin and testing environmental samples for presence of Toxocara, as well as assessing level of contamination of vegetables on sale in the UK. The data collected will be integrated into a mathematical model of Toxocara spread and this will be used to evaluate different approaches to control Toxocara transmission and protect public health. The project findings will be shared with key stake-holders so they can be used to inform food safety policies and practice.

As the level of risk posed by consuming food products contaminated with Toxocara is currently unknown, this project will provide important information on which to base recommendations for food safety and public health. The suggestion that food might act as a source of infection with Toxocara might explain the high seroprevalence globally. Moreover, higher levels of infection in poorer countries, which have been attributed to poorer hygiene and contact of people with environments contaminated with eggs could also be explained by close contact between dogs and cats and agricultural land in less developed agricultural systems. Scientifically, the project addresses a significant gap in knowledge and will develop practical tools for measuring, tracking and altering infection risk, that could be applied by researchers elsewhere.

Training opportunities: As well as training in technical skills including parasitological diagnosis, molecular biology, statistics and modelling parasite transmission dynamics, the student will gain experience in writing and presenting work to scientific and lay audiences and co-producing outputs with stakeholders. The student will have the opportunity to work in the laboratories of both supervisors and will learn how to design epidemiological studies and carry out fieldwork.

Student profile: This project would be suitable for students with a veterinary degree or a degree in biological sciences or a quantitative discipline such as mathematics, physics or engineering. Demonstrated interest in the topic, for example through prior experience in veterinary or related fields would beneficial. Some experience of laboratory settings, for example through undergraduate projects or placements, would be helpful. As the project involves a modelling component, demonstrated ability in quantitative skills and interest in use of quantitative approaches would be advantageous.

Funding Notes

This project is part of the FoodBioSystems BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP), it will be funded subject to a competition to identify the strongest applicants. Due to restrictions on the funding, this studentship is only open to UK students and EU students who have lived in the UK for the past three years.

The FoodBioSystems DTP is a collaboration between the University of Reading, Cranfield University, Queen’s University Belfast, Aberystwyth University, Surrey University and Brunel University London. Our vision is to develop the next generation of highly skilled UK Agri-Food bioscientists with expertise spanning the entire food value chain. We have over 60 Associate and Affiliate partners. To find out more about us and the training programme we offer all our postgraduate researchers please visit View Website.


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