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Newton Fund grant to aid Southampton researchers in understanding and reducing the impact of infectious disease in Malaysia

Published: 
3 July 2015
Dr Stuart Clarke

A group of collaborators led by the University of Southampton have been awarded a British Council Newton Fund Institutional Links Grant to support ground-breaking research towards reducing the burden of infectious disease in Malaysia. The award of over £120,000 will help the researchers to examine more closely the role of weather and industrial pollution in the prevalence of disease-causing bacteria with a view to the introduction of appropriate vaccines and better antibiotic prescribing whilst building local capacity in public health.

Through the Newton Fund, part of the UK’s official development assistance programme, Britain is using its strength in research and innovation to promote economic development and social welfare of partner countries.

The University of Southampton will work with colleagues from Universiti Sains Malaysia, the International Medical University (Malaysia), the National Public Health Laboratory and University of Southampton Malaysia Campus to support Malaysia’s Ministry of Health to help build laboratory and disease surveillance capacity. The Southampton team comprises investigators from the University of Southampton Faculty of Medicine (Academic Unit of Clinical and Experimental Sciences and Academic Unit of Primary Care and Population Sciences).

“We’re pleased to receive this grant from the British Council which we hope will help us make a positive impact on the lives of the Malaysian population,” said Dr Stuart Clarke, Associate Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the University of Southampton and the project’s Chief Investigator and Co-ordinator. “Further impact will take place as we broaden our partnerships through the University of Southampton Malaysia Campus. Direct population health benefit will arise through the introduction of vaccines to the NIP [National Immunisation Programme] and to improvements in laboratory capacity, disease diagnosis, and disease surveillance in the country.”

Over the next two years, Dr Clarke and his research team will endeavour to complete a multi-centre microbial carriage study across Malaysia. This looks into how the number and range of bacterial species naturally carried by humans, which sometimes cause diseases like pneumonia and meningitis, are affected by temperature, humidity, rainfall and air pollution. This information will shed light on the usefulness of certain vaccines in the country and help estimate how climate change will affect future patterns of disease. This grant also provides opportunities for local scientific officers and technicians in Malaysia to gain knowledge, experience and skills towards building capacity in public health work such as disease surveillance, outbreak investigation and prediction, and academic productivity. Ultimately, the team will help to establish and commission new laboratory space at the National Public Health Laboratory in Kuala Lumpur.

“Infectious diseases pose one of the greatest threats to mankind and vaccination has led to a reduction in respiratory infection, meningitis and septicaemia. However, many vaccines target only a limited number of bacterial strains, allowing the emergence of novel strains, which are not covered by these vaccines,” Dr Clarke continued. “There is the potential for these to be more pathogenic or antibiotic resistant thereby reducing the effectiveness of existing vaccines. New strains have the clear potential to emerge during an epidemic or pandemic of viral infection.

“Climate change in Malaysia, due to industrial air pollution, smoke haze, changes in seasonal monsoon patterns, and global warming, is also likely to affect the prevalence of infectious diseases, particularly those associated with the respiratory tract,” Dr Clarke concluded. “Malaysia, like many other countries in the World Health Organisation Western Pacific/South East Asia regions, needs to enhance its expertise and capacity to respond effectively to such risks.”

 

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