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October 30, 2014

Assistance on Fighting Ebola Is Ongoing in Zambia
Japanese experts make great efforts on the front lines

photoThe map shows the six countries with Ebola cases in West Africa, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, another affected country in central Africa (as of Oct. 30).

An Ebola outbreak is now buffeting West Africa. In Zambia, located in South Africa, no cases have been reported in the current outbreak. However, the government of Zambia designated the University of Zambia’s School of Veterinary Medicine as the sole diagnostic laboratory of Ebola for early detection and outbreak prevention in August and blood samples of suspected patients from all over the country are being collected and tested. There, Japanese experts are contributing to the diagnosis of Ebola on the ground.

Using an ongoing project

photoExperts obtain blood and organ samples from fruit bats.

Most viral infectious diseases, including Ebola, are zoonoses caused by viruses that infect both humans and animals. Zambia, as a country sharing borders with eight other countries with active inflows and outflows of people and animals, constantly faces a threat of viral zoonoses. In the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, an outbreak of Ebola was reported in September.

In Zambia, very little educational and research infrastructure toward viral infectious diseases has been developed, and no sufficient diagnostic system of infectious diseases has been set up.

To improve the situation, Hokkaido University and the University of Zambia’s School of Veterinary Medicine have jointly implemented the Project for Surveillance of Viral Zoonoses in Africa. The project is within the framework of SATREPS (1), a partnership of JICA and the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST).

With a goal of strengthening research and survey capability related to viral zoonoses in the country, the project aims to develop and improve diagnostic techniques, and to clarify the mechanisms of where and how hemorrhagic viruses (2) exist in the natural world, and when or how they invade human society.

With a leading researcher of hemorrhagic viruses, Professor Ayato Takada of Hokkaido University, as chief, multiple experts from the university work on the joint research agenda with the University of Zambia.

The project team collects biological samples including bats and the droppings of water birds in the field on a monthly basis, to carry out the epidemiological study (3) of such viral zoonoses as avian influenza and Ebola.

Past Japanese assistance to the University of Zambia’s School of Veterinary Medicine

photoPictured are three types of equipment used for the genetic diagnosis of Ebola virus disease. Tubes to mix reagent for Ebola virus gene detection and genes extracted from patient's blood, left, a thermal cycler for reactions in liquid compounds, center, and a trans-illuminator that visualizes the result of diagnosis, right.

To the project that implements such research, the Ministry of Health requested assistance in diagnosis of Ebola in August, through the University of Zambia. For diagnosis of Ebola, advanced equipment and safe and accurate experimental techniques are essential. The request was made because the ministry highly values equipment and techniques in the University of Zambia’s School of Veterinary Medicine that accumulated there through past Japanese cooperation.

Japanese assistance for the University of Zambia’s School of Veterinary Medicines started in 1984 with grant aid to build its facility. Since then, Japan has dispatched Japanese experts and also conducted training sessions in Japan for Zambian personnel from 1985 to1997, then implemented the Project for Improvement of Animal Health and Production Delivery through Extension Services from 2006 to 2009.

In 2007, with an initiative called J-GRID (4) by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), a Zambia office of the Hokkaido University Research Center for Zoonosis Control was set up within the University of Zambia’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Then in 2010, an experimental laboratory with the biosafety level 3 (5) was established.

Furthermore, through the SATREPS project by JICA and JST, Establishment of Rapid Diagnostic Tools for Tuberculosis and Trypanosomiasis and Screening of Candidate Compounds for Trypanosomiasis (2009-2013), and the ongoing project, Japan has provided inspection and research equipment to the school. While participating in the international joint research, it has continuously transferred its skills to Zambian researchers.

Japanese experts play a central part in Ebola inspection

photoExpert Masahiro Kajihara, right, is interviewed by Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation.
photoKajihara, left, gives a lecture on infection control at a secondary school in Lusaka.

At the moment, Experts Masahiro Kajihara and Akina Mori from Hokkaido University Research Center for Zoonosis Control are assigned to the University of Zambia for the project. Since August they have played a central role in diagnosis of Ebola with researchers in the School of Veterinary Medicine.

“I am often asked whether I’m afraid of handling blood samples of patients, but the minimum requirements of protective facilities and equipment are in place here, so I am not afraid in that sense. However, if our diagnosis is delayed for one day, that means countermeasures are delayed for one day. If we make a false diagnosis, it could possibly spread the infection. There is always a feeling of tension that we must give the earliest and most accurate diagnosis possible because it affects people's lives,” Kajihara says.

As of Oct. 14 they had examined patients’ samples in nine suspected cases, but no Ebola virus had been detected in any of them.

The project will continue to provide not only physical assistance, such as the reagent required for diagnosis and protective gear, but also technical assistance for Zambian staff to be able to establish diagnostic systems by themselves through sample diagnosis.

Since the start of the assistance for the diagnosis of Ebola, project members have been interviewed by journalists working in multiple media such as TV, radio and newspapers, which leads to recognition of the project within the country as well as aid agencies in other countries.

Also on Sept. 22, after a request from a secondary school in the capital of Lusaka to give a lecture on Ebola, project members including Kajihara explained infection control and other topics to the students. With anxiety growing, experts in the project contribute to preventive measure against Ebola, and communicate accurate knowledge to people to help them feel more secure.


Notes:

1: Science and Technology Research Partnership for Sustainable Development. A cooperative framework of JST and JICA for research projects of 3-5 years targeting global issues and involving partnerships between researchers in Japan and developing countries.
2: Various viruses causing hemorrhagic fever, such as Ebola, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever and Dengue fever.
3: An inspection method to investigate epidemics of infectious diseases. Setting an environmental factor considered to be a cause of disease, it investigates the possibility of the factor causing the disease.
4: Japan Initiative for Global Research Network on Infectious Diseases. An initiative led and launched by MEXT called the Program of Founding Research Centers for Emerging and Reemerging Infectious Diseases. It supports establishment of a research base in developing countries for joint research by Japanese universities and/or research institutes and local institutes. As the second phase of the program, it is now renamed as J-GRID.
5: An experimental laboratory handling disease agent of biosafety level 3. This level is applicable to agents that may cause severe disease if it infects humans or animals, but has low possibility of propagating to other individuals.

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