February in Zimbabwe
Preparations for the field trip this year had a different feel to them. Our trip would encompass three different parts, Part 1: a workshop on Research Ethics, Part 2: a visit to a previously visited site, Madziwa and finally Part 3: a visit to a new site as a new study gets underway. This was the second trip I had been involved in, not that this makes me an expert in any shape or form but I had an inkling of what was in store for the team. Once again we would be travelling into rural Zimbabwe to help and learn from our colleagues from the University of Zimbabwe. This would be the final sample gathering trip performed for this particular study, hard to believe we were nearing the end.
A familiar picture soon emerged in the lab with a cluster of large boxes gathering in the corner. We shipped consumables to the field including bleeding equipment to isolate plasma and serum, sample containers and filtration devices and urine dipsticks to aid diagnosis.
Our consignment had an easy transit to Harare this year with all 9 boxes arriving in good time. It always strikes me as strange to open boxes in the field site that you packed back in Edinburgh.
The workshop was held at the Mendel Training facility in Harare. Delegates came from many different countries including University of Botswana, Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation, University of Ghana, KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, University of Rwanda, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of Khartoum, Neglected Tropical Disease Control, Coordinating Office for Control of Trypanosomiasis in Uganda (COCTU), University of Zimbabwe and the University of Edinburgh, UK. Topics ranged from “Ethical issues in international collaborative health research” to “Research into vulnerable persons and groups”. It was an interactive and vibrant meeting. I am sure everyone left with a deeper insight into something that is pertinent to all of our research.
February in Zimbabwe is considered to be the rainy season and this year the rainy season was living up to its name. Rivers were running fast and the group was concerned this may cause problems for the mothers travelling with small children to the study sites. However, the turnout at our main sites was impressive with a couple of places seeing over 150 participants. I went to the same location I visited last year, Mupfure. Some of the children I remembered from last year, twin girls for example and it was lovely to meet up with the village health workers I met 12 months ago. The village health workers along with local nurses contribute hugely to the study, helping out with participant recruitment and education as well as practical help when we are doing the anthropometric measurements such as height and weight.
We quickly fall into the fieldwork routine and before we know it we are processing blood and urine samples in our rural lab. Seeing the work that goes into collecting that small tube of serum certainly gives you a different perspective and emphasizes the preciousness of these samples: a valuable take-home message for anyone undertaking research into human infections.
I can’t stress enough what a team effort this is. It’s a huge task but we complete the work for this site in a few days. I would estimate that we processed around 700 samples in that short time. Before we know it it’s time to pack up the equipment in order to move it on to our next location.
For the first couple of days in the field we hosted the editor of The Lancet HIV, Peter Hayward. Peter had a hands-on experience of the challenges faced and rewards reaped when doing research in a rural African setting. I’m sure that he will remember this trip for many years to come.
Overall, the influence of the study has been a positive one. The village health workers in particular described how educating the mums about Bilharzia has helped to reduce the number of kids presenting with schistosome. Apart from final health checks and any treatments required, all that remains for us to do now is to feedback our conclusions to the local communities.
Our final destination was a village called Murewa. This village had been part of previous studies carried out by the lab and was about to become part of a new survey. Prior to our visit the villagers had been informed of the study and asked if they wished to participate. Recruiting for a new study is always a tricky time.
Most, if not all of this work, from the Ethics workshop to the two field studies conducted could not have happened was it not for the funding bodies who support our research, namely: The Thrasher Research Fund, TIBA (funded by the NIHR), the British Academy, the BBSRC and IAA award.
Job done for this field trip, time to say goodbye Madziwa; Sarai zvakanaka! (which means stay well).