Young Explorer Cara Brook is in Madagascar studying the impact of human land development on biodiversity and how it could potentially spread infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to people. Cara will focus on bubonic plague in small mammals and henipaviruses and lyssaviruses (two strains of viruses) in bats.
A friend of mine once told me that half of his life in Madagascar was spent “waiting for things to happen”, and there’s certainly been an element of that in my first summer of field work. It’s hard to bring the expectations of the developed world into this developing world environment, but I’m learning to walk the fine line between firm deadlines and the moramora Malagasy approach to life.
I write to you now on another last night in Tana, where I’ve been buried in meetings for the past week—we’re headed back sur terrain tomorrow, though by the time of your reading ‘tomorrow’ will be ancient history, and we’ll be long lost in the Ambany’vohitra. Primarily, we’ve been waiting for the Institut Pasteur Madagascar to procure us a giant bonbon, or dewar as we say in scientific English, full of liquid nitrogen.
Our first bout of trapping and sampling the rodent fauna of Madagascar helped us more clearly delineate our protocols, and now, we’re hoping to get something real out of our samples. Chiefly, any invasive Rattus rattus that we catch will get euthanized via ketamine/xylaxine anesthesia followed with cervical dislocation, and their kidneys—the prime site of leptospira infection—will go straight into the liquid nitrogen freezer for PCR and sequencing later.
Ankazobe Peace Corps Volunteers Travis is all a riot to hear that we’ll be transporting liquid nitrogen via taxi-brousse tomorrow—that’s the overcrowded bus system that is the only widely available form of Malagasy public transport. But we’re buying our precious cargo an extra seat, and we get enough strange looks as vazaha anyway…
In addition to Leptospirosis, we’re also investigating bubonic plague in the Malagasy highlands, which might turn out to be the focus of Evaline Cheng’s senior thesis…or even my PhD—we shall see; this first summer is all about exploring options and nailing down a feasible project.
We have a sack of Rapid Detection Tests for plague out here in Madagascar, and they are working beautifully with a variety of samples—feces from our live-trapped endemic mammals and organs from the rats. We drop the sample in an eppendorf tube full of buffering solution, swirl it around a bit, poke in a dipstick, and ten minutes later, we know whether the rodent was infected with plague. That is a timeline for developed world results!
Madagascar is one of a handful of countries still reporting human plague infection on an annual basis—some couple thousand cases annually, a few hundred of which are usually fatal. Indeed, my good friend, Andramasina PCV Kim Conner, tells me that three people died of plague in her highland town this past January. I emphasize the ‘highland’ bit because Malagasy plague shows a unique distribution concentrated above an 800m elevational gradient in the Malagasy Haute Plateau.
In other nations where plague is endemic (in disease terms, this means that it persists year-to-year), native fauna are typically implicated in plague’s sylvatic cycles. Plague is actually still present in the US in this form—in prairie dogs in Colorado and in ground squirrels in California. Human infection is rare due to the lack of widespread human contact with its secondary host, Rattus rattus.
In Madagascar, R. rattus are abundant everywhere and very much in contact with human communities—indeed, Evaline gave a little shriek when we nearly stepped on one dead in the Tana streets today—and the role (if any) of native Malagasy small mammals in plague’s natural cycles in unknown.
Interestingly, though, R. rattus are found all over Madagascar, but plague-infected rats only in the highlands—in a region that maps directly onto the range of a native Malagasy flea. It’s a complex and fascinating story, and we are aiming to uncover at least one little piece of the puzzle.
Naturally, we face certain risks as researchers flea-combing plague-infected rats, and we wear all sorts of snazzy safety equipment which draws even more stares everywhere we work. We wear white Tyvek suits and gloves and respirators and look like astronauts who mistook the deforested mining grounds of central Madagascar for the moon.
We’ve managed to augment our get-ups a bit with a few Malagasy acquisitions—used clothing is quite à la mode out here, and when a surprise rainstorm caught Christian and I unawares in a remote village, we procured some local ‘frip,’ as it is known, to keep ourselves warm. So now I own a rather frumpy blue windbreaker with broken zippers and worn flower embroidery, but Chris definitely takes the cake—he got a blazing green and pink nylon track jacket that looks like it came straight out of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air…
In spite of the protective gear, I still seem to be a master of getting sick in Madagascar. I’m reading Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter these days, and most of the time, I think about how different Africa-Africa seems from Africa-Madagascar, but every now and then, I come across a similarity that impresses me—and usually, it relates to being sick.
Greene notes that, “The smallest scratch in this country turned green if it were neglected for an hour”, and indeed, I find that every nick and cut and scratch in Madagascar flares up with red-raw infection and becomes a feasting site for flies. I also spent the better part of yesterday vomiting up every piece of food I tried to consume—whether the perpetrator was some variety of mofo (the various Malagasy frybreads you buy on the street) or the dangerous nook-and-cranny strawberries (beware! they call them the cholera fruit!) that Kim’s Malagasy mama fed us for lunch, or something else entirely, I cannot say.
I’m just glad it was me and not Evaline up-chucking dinner across the hotel doorstep, and I’m crossing my fingers that my course of ciproflaxin will have me smiling and chipper by our departure time tomorrow.
It’s a tough place to live and work, Madagascar, but a fascinating one, to be sure. It’ll take time and patience and perseverance to produce a Princeton PhD from this developing world chaos, but I have no doubts that it can be done. And let’s be real—we would not be here if we didn’t delight in some aspect of the challenge.