The sharing of knowledge and the collaboration between different fields and communities are powerful tools in science. Integrating the arts, engineering, and the sciences can promote different ways of thinking, and the result can be the perfect combination of a multitude of minds coming together to make or discover something both unique and useful. The scientific community relies on the spread of knowledge, to both encourage collaboration and discovery, and to effectively engage the public with their findings. This blog post will explore the ways in which science communication and public engagement is integral for the building of scientific insight, with a focus on tropical medicine and public health.
I am a student at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) studying Tropical Disease Biology. If you ask someone what they think ‘Tropical Disease Biology’ means, you often see the disconnection they feel about their role as a member of the public in the United Kingdom and something that concerns tropical countries, with responses often regarding travel health only. However, they encounter science every day, and mosquitoes too! Insects and disease are abundant, and so is people’s curiosity. The public snake tours and the festivals and outreach programmes the LSTM hold are evidence that the public want to know about what the LSTM do. Check out my blog on snakebite here! It is important that our research at the LSTM is shared in a way that is tailored to different sectors of society in order for them to access knowledge and to give us a different perspective of their understanding. Understanding antibiotic resistance and the responsibility the public hold to stop this is an example of how the LSTM are engaging the public, with the likes of the ‘Swab & Send’ project. This is a project generated in response to tackling antibiotic resistance. People are encouraged to send in a swab they have taken from a place of their choice. That swab will be tested to identify any potential bacteria that could help in the production of a new antibiotic. Not only does this have the potential of finding a new antibiotic, which is the direct benefit for the scientists, but it also encourages the public to think about their own personal role in the antibiotic resistance crisis and spread the word of the importance of slowing resistance down. The vibrant video clips depicting bacteria and antibiotics and their interaction, will grab the public’s attention, and encourage exploration into this field. This two-way process involving interaction and listening is what generates mutual benefit and understanding and is what public engagement is all about. Every member of a community, whatever field they may be in, are important in scientific discovery and awareness.
Tropical medicine revolves around empowerment, and sharing knowledge is a key concept regarding this. Many control programmes, such as mass drug administration programmes, will be undertaken in countries that have been previously neglected. Mass drug administration consists of distributing drugs in large numbers, often against worm infections, for prevention of a disease, rather than necessarily cure. Most commonly it is children in lower income countries that are infected heavily with worm infections. Daily practices, such as playing or not wearing shoes, unfortunately can increase the exposure of these children to certain worm infections. This constant exposure that is difficult to prevent has meant that mass drug administration has been highly successful in keeping the worm infections low, whether this is preventing reinfection, or treating an active one. The implementation of control programmes involves building trust between locals and researchers, busting myths around the motives for giving these drugs, and empowering people to take health into their own hands. This all involves effective communication, whether that is using posters, music, radio, books or holding classes, learning about different cultures is needed to understand which communication tool will be the most successful. People-centred health research helps us to better understand an individual’s experience, and to tailor health and scientific programmes around that. Lifestyle choices that may seem normal for us, such as washing your hands before preparing food or after using the toilet, are often not available in certain tropical countries, and these activities can have a direct impact on health. To understand the differences in our everyday activities, a conversation must be held, not only does it improve our understanding of why disease could be abundant due to risk factors and exposure, but how integration between WASH education and control programmes need to occur concurrently. WASH education regards Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, and is extremely important alongside the use of mass drug administration.
An example of this was the use of the booklet ‘Juma na kichocho’ on Unguja Island in Zanzibar. It is a comic book aimed for children about the control of urinary schistosomiasis, specifically about how they can protect themselves and their community by changing their behaviours, such as decreasing water exposure. Urinary schistosomiasis, also known as snail fever and bilharzia, is a disease caused by a parasitic worm that is carried by a certain species of snail. The book is an example of a playful communication method that tackles a very serious problem. Expecting to change people’s daily activities in hope of protecting individual and community health is not going to happen instantly, which is why it is so important that ongoing communication between different communities takes place, to empower people to take their health into their own hands and spread knowledge.
The bed net, an integral, and seemingly simple product, part of mosquito control, is a key example of the physical outcomes of communication. The biological aspects regarding mosquito behaviour around the net and the use of a range of insecticides is important information for net production and design, which regards product designers and engineers. Optimal net distribution is aided by the epidemiologists to highlight those at risk, hot spots for disease, and how to efficiently distribute them. The usage of nets needs to be monitored, and this involves encouraging appropriate use, and not for fishing which is a common misuse. This chain of production of a thought to be ‘simple’ product has required the knowledge of many different fields; biologists, epidemiologists, engineers and product designers, and the continuous communication throughout. The most important part of this chain is the use of the bed nets for those at risk, and this is where communication is imperative. Understanding cultural differences and how bed nets could be used or misused in different societies will directly impact public health.
Science communication is all about sharing ideas and reinventing discovery. Making a connection to people’s lives through the use of science communication can have a widespread effect on public health. Whether sharing knowledge has a mass effect, or just an effect in a small circle of friends, a small change can stimulate inspiration, which can lead to novel ideas and solutions, and this is what makes science such an exciting and ever-changing field. This transformative learning between the public and experts is what is needed to keep the ideas flowing and dynamic in the scientific community. Encouraging sharing of knowledge and understanding is an integral part of tropical disease biology, and one that we should all practice. Simple language does not mean simple thinking.