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  • Elena Bouldin

Mosquitoes and Plastic Pollution

August 2nd, 2021

A conversation with Stanford Professor Dr. Desiree LaBeaud about her career as an infectious disease paediatric doctor, her arbovirus research work in Kenya, and her new nonprofit HERI-Kenya.

Elena: Most of us know that plastic pollution is a big problem. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, it's not biodegradable, and it's everywhere you look and in most of everything we use. The fact that plastic persists in the environment has multiple ecological consequences, but your concerns with plastic come from its effects on human health. Could you tell us about the connection between plastic and the work you do as a research physician?

Dr. LaBeaud: Of course! I study mosquito-borne diseases. We call them arthropod-borne viruses or arboviruses. We've been uncovering the great burden of these infections in different parts of the world, particularly Kenya. We were trying to understand human exposure and disease consequences, but we were also doing entomology, a lot of trapping of mosquitoes. And we started to find that we were getting tons of mosquitoes around trash dumps or yard shops, which are the players in the informal plastic recycling trade where they collect plastic in Kenya.

Dr. LaBeaud finding mosquito larvae with colleague Bryson Ndenga Source: HERI-Kenya

Dr. LaBeaud: We were also doing some intervention programs in the schools, talking to kids about where they found mosquitoes in their neighborhood. The kids were coming back saying they were behind their houses, and so forth. So trash has a lot of health impacts. Everybody knows that big trash breeds rodents, and rodents can spread different infectious diseases. But our interest in trash, particularly plastic pollution, comes from the fact that when it rains the plastic fills up with a little bit of water, and hot water is a breeding ground for different types of mosquitoes, particularly the aedes species mosquitoes, which is what causes dengue, Zika, chikungunya, yellow fever, and so forth.

So all this plastic is breeding mosquitoes, and people are getting sick with these viruses, and that's a big problem. On top of it, because there's no formal recycling, what ends up happening with most of this plastic is that it gets burned. And so when plastic is burned, of course, that leads to air pollution, and air pollution kills about six million people a year. The open burning of millions and millions of tons of trash in the world every year contributes to death and health problems. There's also plastic in the ocean, which leads to even more problems. Everything's connected. We're surrounded by this problem. And so, of course, it has a multifaceted impact on health.

Elena: You're right. But you are taking action! To combat this plastic pollution problem and its relation to health, you founded a nonprofit, the Health and Environmental Research Institute – Kenya (or HERI-Kenya for short), with two of your colleagues, Francis Mutuku and Bryson Ndenga. With HERI, you hope to address this problem in Kenya. Could you expand on why you chose Kenya? You were talking about the problems you found there, but why were you there to begin with?

Dr. LaBeaud: It all comes down to people, right? I started in Kenya because my mentor was working in Kenya. When I started doing this research, about 18 years ago now, I was a pediatric infectious disease fellow. So you go through your training, you go to college, you go to medical school. In medical school. I decided I wanted to be a pediatrician. So I did my pediatrics training, which is three years. And then, when I was in my pediatrics training, I went abroad for the first time, to Laos. It was in the middle of monsoon season, and unfortunately I witnessed a lot of children dying from dengue. That really had an impact on me, and I realized, "wow, if I got some infectious disease training, I might be helpful in the developing world!"

So I went back and I did an infectious disease fellowship. And so that's another three years. And in those three years, you do a couple of years of research. So for my research project, I went around and I interviewed with all the different mentors, and I found a really great mentor. His name is Charlie King. He's still my mentor. And he was working in Kenya. He is a schistosomiasis expert. Schistosomiasis is a different vector-borne disease, it's a parasitic infection. But anyway, he had this side project on something called Rift Valley Fever Virus. I liked that project because it could kind of be my own, and also because when I was in high school, I was very much into the environment, and this project had a lot of environmental context in it.

Mosquitoes are ectotherms. They're out there at ambient temperatures, and their environment is important – superimportant –for disease transmission. Also, it was in Kenya, and I knew I wanted to work in sub-Saharan Africa. So I started working with Charlie in Kenya, and I started developing relationships with all the wonderful, brilliant Kenyan scientists that I get to work with. And those relationships have just grown over the years. And the reason why we're starting a nonprofit in Kenya is because I love Kenya, it's like my second home, and a lot of my friends and family are there.

Landscape in Kwale County (Kenya) Source: HERI-Kenya

Dr. LaBeaud: So I've been working with Francis and Bryson for many, many years on these infections. I don't get to really practice a lot of medicine when I'm there. I go as an observer in the medical field. And I have been doing research. There's a lot you can accomplish in the clinics, and there's a lot you can do in research, but there are some things that you can't really do in either. And it just got to the point where we wanted to implement some changes in the ground that you can't really get funded by research. It doesn't work that way. So we needed a different way to execute change and really dig in. The nonprofit space seemed like the right space for that. So that is what we're trying to do with HERI. We are really focused on inspiring community action through education and awareness of how the environment and health are intricately connected. We believe that education and awareness can empower, and that the spreading of knowledge may promote grassroots activism, which in turn may lead to some policy changes on environmental health issues.

Elena: Was founding a nonprofit something that evolved after encountering these roadblocks in funding, or is it something you had in the back of your head and were looking to do at some point?

Dr. LaBeaud: I always knew I wanted a nonprofit, but I didn't know what it was going to be in. Now it's going to be in creating a circular economy for plastic. So now a person who is a paediatric infectious disease physician is going to be working in plastics! But that's OK. That's why life is fun, right?

Elena: Right. Where there's a will there's a way! So you have founded HERI. Can you elaborate on the work you're planning to do with this nonprofit? Give us some specifics.

Dr. LaBeaud: Well there are several things we're planning to do. Up to now, and for a long time, we've been researchers, and we've generated a lot of knowledge and understanding about this mosquito-borne disease, about how and why it is happening. But we haven't been able to translate those research findings into changes in the community. Some things have happened —health has definitely been getting better because of our research,— but we felt that we had not triggered much change, like translating that science into community action that in turn makes communities healthier, and at the same time makes the planet healthier.

HERI was founded this year. We have five goals we're hoping to accomplish in the next couple of years. The first two goals are to educate at least 500 youth and community stakeholders so as to start to create a culture of plastic recycling in Kenya, because, right now, no formal one exists. There are many changes in mindsets and cultural shifts that need to take place for that to happen, but that is what we're aiming at. We are also working on hosting a local scientific conference to strengthen existing strategic partnerships for research and policy change around environmental health issues, as well as create new ones. We also want to pick up and repurpose at least 10 tons of plastic waste from the streets before it gets burned, so that our community members and our mother earth can breathe easier. And we want to do all of this while strengthening the community by creating jobs and economic incentives in this circular economy for plastic.

Elena: You mentioned the need for mindset and culture shifts. Is there currently a stigma regarding trash in the culture that is contributing to the slow or lack of progress in this problem?