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ESR Investigators awarded $1.3M to unravel mysteries of rising gut infections

21 September 2020

ESR investigators have been given the green light to unravel an unexplained and increasing epidemic of gastroenteritis in New Zealand.

The bacterium Yersinia enterocolitica causes fever, diarrhoea abdominal pain and in 12 per cent of cases this requires hospital treatment. In last 12 months there have been 1,177 notified cases of yersiniosis, more than double the number of cases five years ago.

Funded by the Health Research Council, the ESR-led team will apply its expertise to unpack why yersiniosis infections in New Zealand are rising and identify the causes, using the Canterbury region as a focal point.

Study-lead, ESR Science Leader, Dr Brent Gilpin says this epidemic requires the right tools and investigators to unravel it.

“ESR collects data for more than fifty notifiable diseases from public health units across the country, as the number of yersiniosis cases increased, our experts were alarmed. It became clear to us that we needed to apply ESR’s tools and expertise, like source-tracking, to this mystery so that we might help reduce the burden of yersiniosis.”

“We want to know more than why rates are increasing, but how they are becoming infected and why it affects some more than others.”

The study will use tools, like whole genome sequencing, matched with enhanced surveillance of notified cases, through extended questionnaires carried out by the Canterbury Public Health Unit. These tools will help identify potential sources of yersiniosis in New Zealand, including contaminated food, household pets, farm animals or water.

This will allow the investigators to generate new data on the severity of illness and quantify the overall disease burden, as well as determining if there are differences with pathogenicity and antimicrobial resistance among Yersinia from different sources.

Another part of the study will investigate why Māori have lower notified rates of yersiniosis.

“We think that notified rates severely under-represent the actual disease burden among Māori, but we have to prove that,” Dr Gilpin says. “By understanding what contributes to these low notification rates measures can be put in place to reduce any resulting health inequities.”

The ultimate goal of the study is to help improve surveillance activities and help devise control strategies to ultimately reduce yersiniosis and other enteric diseases.

The research team draws from a diverse range of expertise within ESR, community and public health, Massey University, the Ministry of Primary Industries and collaborators from the USA, Finland, Germany, France, Australia and Canada

The 36-month project, Unravelling the mysteries of yersiniosis, is made possible through from the Health Research Council’s new Health Delivery Research portfolio. It is one of 32 research grants funded, and the portfolio seeks to directly improve the delivery of healthcare services in New Zealand.