Epidemiology, ecology and socio-economics of disease emergence

Published on 10 September 2012

Research Areas



Start Date: 1 February 2012 | End Date: 31 January 2017


A combination of growth and migration is resulting in massive increases in the population of urban and peri-urban zones in Africa. The United Nations has estimated that city populations in Africa will rise from 35% of the total population in 2007 to 51% by 2030. The impacts of this on human welfare, healthcare, sanitation, and other policy-orientated fields has received vast attention, but there has not been a substantive effort to integrate across disciplines, particularly with regard to the impacts of these diverse issues on disease transmission.


The overall objective of this project is to understand the mechanisms leading to the introduction of pathogens into urban populations, and their subsequent spread.

The focus is on livestock as sources of these pathogens: emerging diseases are likely to be zoonotic in origin, and livestock pathogens, through the close interactions between livestock, their products and people, are at high of risk crossing the species barrier.

The focus in this project is on Escherichia coli, as an exemplar of many potential emerging pathogens, which exists in a diversity of hosts, in the environment, on food, in waste etc.

The geographical focus is the city of Nairobi, Kenya, and its hinterlands. In the microbiology components, the project takes a landscape genetics approach to understanding E. coli distribution and spread, with a view to understanding how this is affected by environmental and socio-economic factors.

Research questions

  • Does urban livestock keeping pre-dispose people to acquiring new or more diverse microbial flora?
  • Is the risk compounded by poverty status or other social factors?
  • How is the microbial flora influenced by the keeping of livestock in these areas?
  • Do supply chains for livestock and livestock products bring people into contact with microbial diversity over and above what they would otherwise experience?
  • Why do people source food from particular places? What social and economic factors define food sourcing in a complex city?
  • What influences the microbial flora to which people are exposed through food?
  • How does the design of complex urban environments influence exposure to microbial flora?
  • How has the city of Nairobi grown, how does it continue to grow, and how does urbanization in the region affect exposure to microbial diversity in the human and animal population?
  • What is the role of per-domestic wildlife in transmission of zoonotic pathogens and the transport of microbial flora?
  • Why do supply chains exist in the way that they do, and how might they change as demand for products changes with urban growth, or as a consequence of legislation?

The findings will inform development of policy on urban livestock keeping by improving knowledge of the public health risks and by putting those risks in a wider socio-economic context, including the risks associated with alternative sources of livestock products.


  • African Population and Health Research Center
  • Development Planning Unit, University College London
  • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  • International Institute for Environment and Development
  • Kenya Medical Research Institute
  • Roslin Institute
  • Royal Veterinary College, London
  • University of Liverpool
  • University of Nairobi
  • University of Edinburgh
  • Wellcome Trust Sanger Centre


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2 Responses to “Epidemiology, ecology and socio-economics of disease emergence”

  1. Dr. Paul Joseph Mwau says:

    I have recently graduated from the University of Nairobi with a degree of veterinary medicine.I would like to inquire on any opportunities to participate in the research as an intern.

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