Pathogens and policy in the post-truth era – Harriet Auty

Harriet Auty

Welcome to this blog – the first in a series that I will write over the next year. I am a veterinary epidemiologist based at SRUC in Inverness. Over the years my work has focused on a number of pathogens, but I admit to somewhat of an obsession for trypanosomes – parasitic organisms that cause serious disease in humans and animals, and the tsetse that carry them.

Trypanosome epidemiology is complex and dynamic. Multiple wildlife species make up reservoir communities for human and animal disease. Disease risk is influenced by environmental factors and land use changes that affect the suitability of habitat for tsetse, as well as factors such as host composition. Interactions between trypanosomes and their hosts, vectors and environment exist in an intricate balance.

Although trypanosomes are fascinating, that isn’t the main reason to be interested in them. Disturbances to that intricate balance can lead to devastating outbreaks. African animal trypanosomiasis (AAT) remains a major constraint on livestock production in sub-Saharan Africa. Human African trypanosomiasis (HAT), also known as sleeping sickness, is fatal without treatment. Cases are often associated with wilderness areas where tsetse and wildlife populations are present. This means that HAT mostly occurs in remote areas; under-reporting and misdiagnosis are common.

Trypanosomiasis has a long history of research. Talk to any group of animal health researchers and there will be someone who cut their research teeth on trypanosomes. But AAT and HAT have remained difficult to control. One of the biggest challenges is that development of effective, sustainable control requires integrated approaches across different sectors.

Clearly AAT/HAT is a classic example of a disease where One Health approaches are essential. On paper this has long been recognised. But what does this mean in practice, and how are One Health decisions made by policy-makers?  

For this project, funded by the Soulsby Foundation, I will be looking at the pathway from research into policy in the context of a One Health approach. Using AAT/HAT as an exemplar, I will be interviewing policy-makers from human health, animal health and wildlife authorities in Tanzania. I will be trying to identify what evidence they use when making disease control decisions and where and how they access this evidence.

For me, this work links my two research interests. In addition to research on trypanosome epidemiology, I work on science-policy liaison for EPIC. EPIC’s remit is to supply Scottish Government with scientific evidence for animal health policy-making; my role specifically is to act as a ‘knowledge broker’ between scientists and policy-makers. Essentially this means trying to make sure that scientists answer the right questions and that policy-makers can meaningfully use the information that scientists provide. Ensuring that policy is ‘evidence-informed’ is challenging, and there can be multiple reasons why it isn’t, particularly in these ‘post-truth’ days.  Building on my experience from EPIC, in this project I will focus on the specific challenges that a One Health perspective brings for getting research into policy, in order to identify ways to strengthen this pathway in the future. I look forward to writing further blogs as the project gets going!

Harriet Auty
Harriet Auty