Thumbi Mwangi: Disease-causing pathogens talk to each other

Last year, I participated in nominating a professional for the prestigious Aspen Institute New Voices Fellowship. My candidate did not make it. Naturally, I became curious about the Kenyan that had beaten my nominee to the price. That is when and how I met veterinary epidemiologist Thumbi Mwangi. When I read his name, I rolled my eyes and thought “People should consider us Nilotes when they chose names for their children…his name takes a ceremony to pronounce! ”

Yet meeting Thumbi Mwangi was a much needed reminder of an unwritten rule for me as a journalist: That I have to allow myself to flow with what comes in and out of my days; That I have to approach every subject with an open mind; that it is in conversations that the story directs me to what is most important, the silent voices that should be amplified because they have been hushed by the sensationalism that characterise journalism in these parts of the world.

Prof Thumbi Mwangi, veterinary epidemiologist and a member of One Health Initiative. PHOTO/WSU

I emailed him with that “selfish” he-could-be-a-story attitude. Boy didn’t he live up to it. He scared me when he told me that Rabies—gotten from a dog bite… or scratch— is 100 per cent fatal once the clinical signs start manifesting. Quoi! He also drew my attention to a subject so crucial to human health, yet so underreported: Zoonoses, diseases that come to man from animals. I must also mention that it is in the course of this meeting that I learnt about Kenya’s Zoonotic Disease Unit (ZDU),very few of such in Africa or the world by the way. After two weeks, the initial interest about why he made it to the fellowship over my nominee sublimed to the background, and the publication of a detailed piece on Zoonoses in Kenya in the Daily Nation came to the fore.

It could be modesty or shyness, but whatever it is the Professor does not like to be reffered to as “Professor”. His Twitter handle has a handful followers mostly of people pooled from his field. “Social media? Oh that is a great platform for those that have the grace,” he said. He says he likes racket games, though. That should act as a saving grace in a profile that would have fit the perfect “boring scientist” narrative. However, it is incredible that such a travelled person is so rural-bred. He was born in Kieni in Nyeri County. From St Martins Boys Hostel, he went to Njiiri School for hi O-levels and found himself in the University of Nairobi (UoN) pursing bachelors in Veterinary medicine and surgery in 2000. While at UoN, he met Prof Kiama Gitahi who is the current director of UoN’s Wangari Maathai for Peace and Environmental Studies.

Picking from his description of Prof Kiama, I gathered that Thumbi considers him (Kiama) a mentor. With a tinge of poignancy, he said: “He gave us a Continuous Assessment Test, I passed and he asked me to see him”. From that meeting, many opportunities would present themselves to the young ambitious Thumbi. He worked at Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Then he pursued interests in small and large animals as well as ranching to as far as Botswana, before getting a scholarship from UoN to pursue a post graduate degree on genetic and animal breeding. Another scholarship would present itself from International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Later, he joined Royal School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, his interests narrowed to epidemiology. His passion earned him a post-doctoral research opportunity at Washington State University, where he teaches and holds a position as a clinical assistant professor.

As a story teller (do we even tell stories in science?), I was most intrigued by his work during his doctoral studies. The conversation began with: “We are most interested in pathogens as a harm to people and animals, but rarely do we study how these organisms interact”. There wet my “aha!” moment. My internal dialogue was like “Wait! So protozoans and all those jaw breaking names I read in Binomial nomenclature class in Biology not only cause diseases that kill, but also talk to each other?” I need to listen to that recording again to get the scientific terms right, but I heard of how a cow gets infected with some pathogen which in turn protects it from another harmful pathogen. That is like saying if your child gets malaria, do not treat it because the malaria parasite is going to protect it from some other common disease. I know, right? Then there were organisms that we should just label as hoes. I mean how could they be able to live in so many domestic and wild animals and still be able to reside in a human body so as to make us sick.

You know what journalists lack in knowledge, they make up for with an unhealthy amount of reading. So I scoured the internet, books and outdated magazines about disease patterns. Let us start with the most basic mind-blowing nugget that the literature gave me. Did you know that 60 per cent of the pathogens that cause infectious diseases in human beings come from animals (WHO)? Then there was Thumbi’s paper published at Plos One that drew a direct line from healthy animals to happier, healthier and wealthier farmers and their families. Wouldn’t it be economically sound if farmers were taught these things?

So with all that, it is understandable why Thumbi champions One health Initiative. This is a global program where many scientists and other professionals advance the idea that human, animal and ecological health are intimately linked and need to be studied and managed as a whole unit. I think I should join  it too… to design posters to announce the latest research. So, thanks to technology, I met a scientist to ask him about one thing and I got the opportunity to be pointed to so many possible stories that could be told, all from his research.

Thumbi is a visiting scientist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), a visiting lecturer at Wangari Maathai Institute for Environmental Studies and Peace where he teaches and supervises graduate students. He also works closely with ZDU.


Difficult sources of information every young journalist must learn to handle

One day my colleague John Ngirachu told me “If you want to do well in this career, you must learn how to handle big egos”. One of the other requirements of this job is listening to your sources of information. You listen to what is (or not) being said in words and body language. In the process of listening you will meet very difficult characters. There are two reasons why people are difficult sources of information several reasons: one, they are afraid of journalists or two, they do not know how the media works. Once you know the reason behind their actions, you can build a long term relationship and get your stories every day.

  1. Mr/Ms know-it-all who thinks journalists are bimbos

You must not fail to add to that article that… I don’t think you can understand what I am saying it is too complicated for a person outside the engineering circles… How are you going to write about fashion and you do not know who Karen Millen is…? How can you ask such a basic question, didn’t you do your research? I don’t think that is the article you should be working on, why don’t you write about…?

Those are some of the questions I have encountered in my three years in the newsroom. It is easy to assume that Mr/Miss Know-It-All may just a proud prick with an inflated ego, but maybe s/he had a past interview with a journalist and got disappointed. Maybe that journalists watered down the interesting bits of a subject about to such basic pedestrian knowledge that Mr/Miss know-it-all was so embarrassed to be associated with such common knowledge that everybody has on the tips of their fingers.

Me in 2014, in Machakos listening to a researcher and a Public Relations Officer explain their concerns about a study to me

The worst move here would be to engage in ego-competition. Do not, and I repeat do not blow your own trumpet about your own qualifications to assure Mr/Miss Know-It-All that “you got this”. I was tempted to tell another upcoming fashion designer that I have been a tailor way before she joined Facebook and I could tell her not only who Karen Millen is but who manufactures her fabrics. Instead, make your source know that you value the knowledge they bring to the table (even when it does not exist). I told her “You are right. These things about fashion are not for every Tom, Dick and Harry. I have googled since yesterday night in preparation for this interview and I was hoping I could learn a thing or two about the subject from a household name in the industry like you. I hope I can ask for any clarification on an issue I don’t understand?” Believe me when I say, she will take it upon herself to educate you. In future Mr/Miss Know-it-All will even take it upon herself to let you know of an interesting bit if info in her circles that she thinks you may write about.

2. The skeptical send-me-the-article-before-you-go-to-press kind.

Researchers and public relations officers are especially fond of this: asking you to send the article after you finish writing so that “they can ensure you have all the facts right”. It is not only against editorial policies of many media houses, it makes you wonder whether the source knows you will deliberately not get the facts right. I understand them. Scientists, scholars and researchers have invested 10 or more years to be who they are. Dr A, Prof B are not just titles. In the quest for “hooking the reader” and simplicity to communicate jargon and hard scientific data to the common reader, journalists have communicated something totally different from what the scientist meant. Let me give you an example. A Proffesor has been researching about a drug that may cure AIDS for 15 years. He is still awaiting clinical trials of the drug and approvals and all that. Then a journalist begins his story this way “A Kenya professor has found a cure for AIDS”. Just that one word and that professor has lost all the respect in his circles and, maybe, funding and that would be the end of his career. So what do you do with Skeptical sources? Explain why you cannot send them the article. Offer to email back what he said only. Tell them that you have a lot to lose too should you report on the wring thing: you could get fired, sued and most importantly, you will lose your credibility.



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Cold? No, journalism and the newsroom makes you too sensitive

I am here. Again. On a new blog.  Is this the third time I am founding a new blog this year? Yes it is. To tame this blogosphere promiscuity, I bought the domain Next time I am tempted to move, I will cry for my Ksh 1,900(or  18USD).

It is Friday. Kenyans and their overly social tendencies are going out to clubs to “get down”  and drink. I, with a near nonexistent social life, am seated at my desk at work trying to write a feature about pope Francis’ visit to Kenya.

I am going through the events of the day. I am disappointed at myself because I have travelled more than I have worked these last two months. My boss, a very considerate and fair man, does not like that. So I have, in my diary, set deadlines to get back to his good books.

As I go through my notes, I remember this couple, poor but loving folks, terrified that they may not be able to raise Sh5 million (about 48,000USD) for their baby’s liver transplant on time. I do not know why the voice of the father is still hanging on my memory…this cloying scent of desperation in his voice laced with hope. I run my hands through my dreadlocks. I need to write this story to inform—like raise awareness on the medical condition the baby has— rather than ask the public to give money to save the baby.I want this story to have a good ending, unlike one that my colleague Eunice wrote where the patient ended up dying  .Then suddenly, I realise that this is not the first tragic story that I will come across in this career.

When I began my job in 2013, I stood beside a thug whose chest had been sprayed with bullets and on his hands was a phone ringing. “Lovely wife” was calling the deceased. When the bodies of the more than 100 students who were shot in Garissa were ferried to Nairobi, I stood there watching mothers and fathers weep for their babies and even from a distance—physical and familial— I could feel their pain. As they talked to us, each of them had such personal statements like “I never got to say goodbye”, “I have lost my only child and best friend”, “We had quarreled and I never got to tell them I loved them”. The bodies of those kids lying on the cold slab in the morgue erected a picture of my little brother Mike on my mind. Mike is an annoying brat that I love with every fibre of my being and would give my life for any time. At that moment, I took my glasses to hide my tears as I picked my phone to tell Mike it was okay for him to go to that hideous party I had forbidden him from attending. For me, sun glasses is an accessory and a tool to mask display of reactions to what I see.

For me, as may journalist, sun glasses is an accessory and a tool to mask the display of reactions to what we see PHOTO/BILLY MUTAI
For me, sun glasses is an accessory and a tool to mask the display of reactions to what I see PHOTO/BILLY MUTAI

I thought I would steel my nerves as days go by. While I have learnt to cope with the pain that I see in the line of duty, my awareness and the desire to have some sort of power of alleviating people’s pain has heightened.

It is a roller coaster. The next day you would sit at a press conference watch a government official tell such blatant lies and give excuses for their failure at their work, mistakes that may have cost people their lives and you would give up on humanity. The following day I would go to Kenyatta National Hospital and that hope would be restored. I would sit there at the casualty department and watch nurses and doctors working under such pressure for such long hours. It would understandable for them to be irritable and become rude but you would see them giving their all to save a life with every emergency that comes.

Journalism reminds you, on a daily basis, the fragility of life and the need to cherish every moment you have. We cover war and never get to raise guns at anyone, you learn to be compassionate because we have the “luxury” to see the ones affected most by the war apart from the combatants: the children, women, broken families and lives lost.