Spill-over of parasites from pets and wildlife threatens human health, including by species that migrate preferentially to the brain. How can we develop and apply precision approaches to target these parasites and support human health and brainpower?
Many parasites are maintained in companion animal and wildlife reservoirs and can infect humans, including species that then migrate to the brain such as the nematodes Toxocara spp. and Angiostrongylus spp., the protist Toxoplasma gondii, and tick-borne encephalitis (TBE). As well as causing clinical illness, neurological infections by zoonotic parasites contribute to a huge burden of sub-clinical disease. For example, children exposed to recent Toxocara spp. infections score significantly lower in tests of cognitive performance than uninfected peers. Current approaches to parasite control rely on wide-scale administration of antiparasitic drugs to animal populations, with limited impact due to poor compliance. Concerns over the environmental impacts of parasiticides and antimicrobial resistance provide further barriers to this strategy. At the same time, climate change and pet movement are fuelling incursions of exotic parasites, such as the recent establishment of A. cantonensis in Europe and TBE in the UK, so the threats are increasing.
This project will develop targeted approaches that allow precision control of threats from this group of parasites. It will use mechanistic methods, building understanding of parasite transmission in a way that allows the gaming of different control strategies, under current and future conditions. First, the student will survey population-level data to estimate the current health burden of zoonotic brain-infecting parasites. Then, an intervention study in partnership with veterinary practices will evaluate the impact of different parasite prevention regimes on roundworm and ectoparasite infections in pet cats and dogs. This will include measurement of parasiticide residues at household level to evaluate the potential negative environmental consequences of different treatment plans. Data from the study, alongside parasite surveys in wildlife presented to rehabilitation hospitals, will determine the relative contributions of different animal types to parasite maintenance and zoonotic threat. The feasibility of precision targeted antiparasitic treatment or demographic interventions based on animal characteristics will be assessed. Finally, future scenarios and appropriate responses will be explored by ‘gamification’ of existing parasite transmission models, including projected climate and population changes, and the refined demographic understanding from data collected in the project. Outcomes will be discussed with stakeholders including veterinary and applied professions, towards evidence-based targeted antiparasitic plans, and with public health bodies to encourage a multi-disciplinary and whole-community approach to these debilitating diseases. A first estimate of the cost of brain-borne zoonotic parasites to human health and cognitive performance will be produced, and set against the weighted costs of different control strategies.
Start Date: 1 October 2022
Duration: 3 years
How to apply: All applications must be submitted via: https://dap.qub.ac.uk/portal/user/u_login.php
Skills/experience required: Training will be provided in parasitology laboratory diagnostic methods, wildlife health assessment, veterinary epidemiology, data analysis and computer modelling.
Note: This project is in competition for DfE funding with a number of other projects. A selection process will determine the strongest candidates across the range of projects, who may then be offered funding for their chosen project.