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07 Jun 2021

Meet the team: Dr Emma Hobbs

Can you introduce yourself and your role at the Doherty Institute?

I am Dr Emma Hobbs and I joined the ‘Beating Buruli in Victoria’ project at the start of this year as a study co-coordinator. I am assisting with logistical and technical support for the mosquito reduction pilot trial that was implemented in the Mornington Peninsula in February 2021, and building from that towards a larger intervention scheduled for summer 2021/2022.

Can you explain what the ‘Beating Buruli in Victoria’ project is?

It’s an NHMRC-funded project led by the Doherty Institute in collaboration with the Victorian Department of Health, Barwon Health, Austin Health, Agriculture Victoria, the University of Melbourne and the Mornington Peninsula Shire. The overall goals are to better understand how Buruli ulcer is transmitted in Victoria, and to determine effective ways to reduce and prevent infections, which can be terribly debilitating.

You mentioned you are currently working on a mosquito reduction pilot. What does this involve – and how will this inform the larger intervention scheduled for this coming summer?

The pilot study, led by entomologist Dr Peter Mee from Agriculture Victoria and his team of intrepid field workers, involved approximately 500 households across Blairgowrie and Rye, half of which were designated as ‘intervention’ zones and the other half as ‘(negative) control’ zones. Mosquito reduction strategies that were implemented in the ‘intervention’ zones included:

  1. Education campaigns to help homeowners reduce potential breeding habitats for container breeding mosquitoes on their properties, for example in roof gutters and around pot plants.
  2. Use of simple, cost-effective and non-toxic mosquito traps (called Gravitraps) that reduce mosquito numbers in and around homes.  Gravitraps are sustainable and non-toxic and have been used worldwide to effectively reduce mosquito numbers.
  3. Use of commercial, mosquito-specific insect growth regulators such as 'NoMoz' in public drains and backyard mosquito breeding sites including rain-water tanks, septic tanks, ponds and bird baths.

Comparing mosquito numbers in the two zones will allow us to measure the effectiveness of the intervention, and will inform the final design of the larger mosquito reduction intervention that is planned for next summer.

We know there are reports of Buruli ulcer being identified in suburbs as close to the CBD as Essendon and Brunswick West – are there any interventions planned for areas beyond the Mornington Peninsula?  

At this stage, we still need to show that the mosquito reduction strategies described above are actually effective at reducing Buruli ulcer cases in humans – this is what we are hoping that next summer’s larger scale intervention will demonstrate. If we can successfully determine an effective combination of intervention strategies, our results will hopefully lead to the development of evidence-based public health policies and guidelines that can help stop the spread of Buruli ulcer around Victoria and even globally.

Meanwhile, we are also looking to conduct possum faecal surveys in different locations on the Bellarine and Mornington Peninsulas as well as in inner Melbourne over the coming winter, to try and better understand the role that possums play in transmitting the bacteria in these areas. These data will further contribute to our understanding of Buruli ulcer transmission and will also inform the design of next summer’s intervention.

What does a typical day at the Doherty Institute look like for you?

My two days per week with the Buruli project have generally been quite varied; so far I’ve been taking the lead on managing communications and reporting with the relevant human research ethics committees, developing content for community engagement and media outreach activities, writing standard operating procedures, plans and risk assessments for the field work components, etc. I’ve been a bit of a ‘gopher’ for the project, making sure that all the necessary documentation and reporting structures are in place to support the principal investigators, as well as the study teams out in the field.

I’ve also just agreed to take on the lead of the new wildlife component of the project, which is being led by Professor Anna Meredith of the University of Melbourne’s Veterinary School. This will aim to investigate the progression of Buruli ulcer in native Australian possums and to further understand their involvement in transmission of the disease to humans.

The combination of both branches of the project will be a perfect example of ‘One Health’ in action – a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment, with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes.

How did you become involved in the field?

I’m a vet by training, but was never particularly drawn to clinical practice after graduation. I discovered veterinary public health or ‘One Health’ research almost by accident, when I was volunteering at a chimpanzee sanctuary in Uganda back in 2009, and have never looked back! My Masters and PhD studies have taken me across the world, conducting field research for zoonotic tapeworms in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, but the chance to work on Buruli ulcer – a neglected tropical disease that is otherwise only found in developing countries – in my own home town of Geelong was just far too good to pass up.

What’s something you and/or your team have achieved that you are proud of?

I’ve only been with the project for a little while, but we recently held a Zoom session in conjunction with the Mornington Peninsula Shire to introduce the project to the communities where the interventions are to take place. There had been a bit of public concern in the past about earlier plans to conduct insecticide spraying to control mosquito populations, so we were hoping that the new, non-toxic strategies planned for the upcoming interventions would be better received. We had a good attendance at the session and the response from the community was really positive; many residents actually requested that we sign them up for the new study, which was fantastic!

What’s your biggest pet peeve?

Terrible Hollywood movie adaptations of my favourite books. I’m looking at you, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

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