For ticks

Pro­fes­sor Chris­tine Maritz-Olivier heads a global study that aims to com­bat ticks and tick-borne dis­eases. The tiny blood­suck­ers rank sec­ond only to mos­qui­toes in trans­mit­ting dis­ease. met the trail­blaz­ing vet­eri­nary sci­en­tist

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Even di­nosaurs were bit­ten by ticks, prov­ing the tenac­ity of the tiny bugs, says Pro­fes­sor Chris­tine Maritz-Olivier as we sit in her tiny, homely of­fice at the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria’s fac­ulty of vet­eri­nary sci­ence in On­der­stepoort. Sur­round­ing her of­fice are small lab­o­ra­to­ries. It is from here that a world­wide bat­tle is be­ing waged on many fronts against the par­a­sites that, at one stage, might have threat­ened our food se­cu­rity.

That they no longer do so is due to the ded­i­cated work and re­search done by Mar­itzOlivier. She is as­so­ci­ated with the de­part­ment of ge­net­ics, nat­u­ral and agri­cul­tural sci­ences at the uni­ver­sity.

She de­vel­oped a unique, in­jectable live­stock tick vac­cine that was eval­u­ated at the uni­ver­sity’s bi­o­log­i­cal re­search cen­tre at the On­der­stepoort Ve­teri­nary Aca­demic Hospi­tal for the first time in 2012.

“It kills about 70% of the ticks on an an­i­mal,” says this ex­cep­tional woman, who en­dan­gered her health re­cently by work­ing at the pace she does.

She chuck­les a lit­tle sheep­ishly, her em­pa­thy and warmth ev­i­dent from the mo­ment I ar­rive.

I am amazed to see that she an­swers all tele­phone calls and deals with cor­re­spon­dence her­self.

“We aim to op­ti­mise the vac­cines so we can in­ject cat­tle once or twice a year with the vac­cine in the same way we use flu vac­cines on our­selves ev­ery year,” she ex­plains.

The im­por­tance of her work is dra­mat­i­cally il­lus­trated by hor­ri­ble tick-borne dis­eases, such as east coast fever, which can halve a herd within a week of in­fec­tion.

“Some­times a farmer has to shoot all his cat­tle be­cause it is such a dev­as­tat­ing dis­ease,” says the pro­fes­sor.

His­tor­i­cally, farm­ers have used dips to con­trol tick in­fes­ta­tions. “But the com­mon blue tick species, such as the

found on cat­tle, is be­com­ing re­sis­tant to the nor­mally used dips such as Ami­traz and syn­thetic pyrethroids,” says Maritz-Olivier.

This tick causes red­wa­ter fever (babesio­sis) and gall sick­ness (anaplas­mo­sis).

“When an­i­mals and hu­mans are bit­ten, the red­wa­ter par­a­site in­vades the red blood cells, mul­ti­plies and de­stroys them, re­sult­ing in anaemia that can kill.”

Un­der a mi­cro­scope, the Babesia par­a­site looks much like the malaria-caus­ing par­a­site plas­mod­ium be­cause they both be­long to the same fam­ily of par­a­sites.

“As a re­sult, we’re be­gin­ning to test an­ti­malaria drugs on the Babesia par­a­sites. We hope to find a new drug that will treat both types of par­a­site,” she says.

Maritz-Olivier has seen tens of thou­sands of ticks on one cow on farms in Mpumalanga, “and I know it will die. Yet for a ru­ral farmer, that cow rep­re­sents ev­ery­thing to him – meat, milk and wealth.”

So des­per­ate are these strug­gling farm­ers that they pour petrol or Jik over their cat­tle in an ef­fort to kill the par­a­sites, “and then they milk them an hour later. I’ve seen this first-hand be­cause I work so closely with them.”

It was the sight of a calf ly­ing dy­ing from red­wa­ter fever, which had been par­tic­u­larly lively and healthy only hours be­fore, that gal­vanised the pro­fes­sor into start­ing a new pil­lar of re­search, fo­cus­ing only on this par­a­site.

“I fought through the night, along­side a vet, for that calf’s life. It sur­vived with blood trans­fu­sions and med­i­ca­tion, but few small-scale farm­ers can af­ford such treat­ment.”

As Maritz-Olivier worked on de­vel­op­ing an im­proved red­wa­ter drug, she learnt that peo­ple could con­tract the dis­ease. Those who died were usu­ally the el­derly and those with com­pro­mised im­mune sys­tems.

Due to the sim­i­lar­ity be­tween malaria and red­wa­ter par­a­sites, “we’re start­ing a new project next year, which we hope gov­ern­ment will fund in or­der to screen pa­tients de­scribed as ‘malaria drug re­sis­tant’. They are treated re­peat­edly for malaria, but do not re­spond.”

Maritz-Olivier is hop­ing her tick and tick­borne dis­eases pro­gramme can de­velop a DNA test to es­tab­lish the cause of a pa­tient’s dis­ease.

“We’ll be the first lab­o­ra­tory to work on such a test in Africa, and we’re start­ing on pa­tients in Mpumalanga.”

The health im­pli­ca­tions of Babesia on im­munecom­pro­mised peo­ple ap­ply through­out South Africa, but par­tic­u­larly in that prov­ince.

“It’s a malaria area and, ad­di­tion­ally, there is HIV,

Work­ing tip:




Wow! mo­ment:

Life les­son:

a large ru­ral pop­u­la­tion, ticks re­sis­tant to cat­tle dips and poverty.”

The lat­ter is a con­di­tion the pro­fes­sor un­der­stands well. She grew up in a poor fam­ily. Her fa­ther died when she and her two sib­lings were young, leav­ing their mother to raise them alone.

After Maritz-Olivier ma­tric­u­lated with a pas­sion for bio­chem­istry, she took out a loan to study at Tukkies. She of­ten worked through the night to sup­port her­self fi­nan­cially by do­ing rou­tine blood tests at pathol­ogy lab­o­ra­to­ries.

She ob­tained her PhD – on the sali­vary glands of the soft tick – in 2005 and for the next five years com­pleted a UK-funded Well­come Trust post­doc­toral fel­low­ship.

“The trust fo­cused on ticks in Africa and was the first world-funded group to con­cen­trate on the par­a­sites,” she says.

She did most of her work at Utrecht Univer­sity in the Nether­lands, fly­ing to Pre­to­ria and back as she worked on the break­through vac­cine for the com­mon blue tick.

The pro­fes­sor has been show­ered with in­ter­na­tional awards for her work, par­tic­u­larly in the US, and has pre­sented her re­search find­ings at 28 in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ences.

Next year, she will as­sume the pres­i­dency of the In­ter­na­tional So­ci­ety for Trop­i­cal and Ve­teri­nary Medicine in Ber­lin. She also cochairs, with Dr Theo Schet­ter from the Nether­lands, the In­ter­na­tional Ticks Vac­cine con­sor­tium, which is sup­ported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion.

This wife of an­other busy Tukkies sci­en­tist, Nicky Olivier, and mother of their son (9) smiles rue­fully when the word ‘re­lax’ is men­tioned, be­fore say­ing she does yoga and reads.

As we leave the On­der­stepoort farm, the hum­ble pro­fes­sor pats a cow and heads back to her tiny of­fice.

Be pre­pared to change your ap­proach. Al­bert Ein­stein said: ‘In­san­ity is do­ing the same thing over and over again, and ex­pect­ing dif­fer­ent re­sults.’

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