Top Bachelor of Pharmacy Graduate

Top Bachelor of Pharmacy Graduate
Bachelor of Pharmacy graduate, Mr Jadin Somiah.

‘I am genuinely honoured to have achieved such an accomplishment. I had no expectation of being one of the top students since my only goal was to comprehensively understand my work,’ said UKZN’s top Bachelor of Pharmacy student, Mr Jadin Somiah after obtaining his degree summa cum laude.

‘However, it was not a complete surprise since I have consistently kept my performance to a certain standard,’ he added. He plans to pursue an MBChB degree after his community service, and eventually practice Medicine and Pharmacy.

‘I decided to study Pharmacy because I love biology, chemistry and helping people. Pharmacy joined all these fields and allowed me to use my talents and serve my purpose,’ explained Somiah. ‘I have always been gifted in using accumulated theoretical knowledge to solve problems and propose solutions. Pharmacy has given me the best of both worlds.’

The 21-year-old added that he did not encounter any noteworthy challenges during his studies since he thrives in stressful situations and easily adapts to change. ‘It sometimes becomes difficult to balance one’s social and academic life but it is essential to give both equal importance. Remember to have fun and prioritise your mental and physical well-being. Live in the present since this is a journey that you will always remember, but also plan your time.’

Somiah enjoyed every moment of his tertiary studies, from the late-night studying sessions to fun-filled weekends. ‘I would like to thank all the Pharmacy staff for being supportive and igniting my passion for learning. My greatest appreciation goes to my mother who was my pillar of strength and a constant source of encouragement,’ he said. 

‘I have always been a well-rounded individual who strives to “have it all”. I worked three part-time jobs while studying, so I could apply my theoretical knowledge to the two pharmacies where I practiced,’ said Somiah.

He also obtained several certificates in management, leadership, teaching, and health sciences as well as Dean’s Commendations and certificates of merit throughout his years of study.

He is a member of the Golden Key Honours Society and received scholarships totalling over R80 000 from UKZN for academic excellence.

Somiah is currently undertaking his pharmacy internship at Life Chatsmed Garden Hospital while registered for programmes in various fields.

Words: Nombuso Dlamini

Photograph: Supplied


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First Tanzanian Surgeon to Graduate with a Doctoral Degree from UKZN

First Tanzanian Surgeon to Graduate with a Doctoral Degree from UKZN
Dr Michael Bartholomew Mwandri graduated with a PhD in Surgery.

Dr Michael Bartholomew Mwandri is the first Tanzanian surgeon to graduate with a doctoral degree from UKZN.

His study - which is also one of the first of its kind on trauma systems conducted outside of the United States and South Africa - was entitled: Trauma Care in Sub-Saharan Africa: Challenges and Opportunities in Botswana and Tanzania for Implementing Afrocentric Systems.

About five million people die from injuries every year and millions more suffer non-fatal injuries. Trauma accounts for the loss of 180 million disability-adjusted life years annually, and makes up 90% of the burden in lower and middle-income countries (LMICs). It is hence essential that trauma care is developed into organised trauma systems in order to reduce the burden from trauma in hospitals and improve patients’ outcomes.

Trauma systems are a system of interrelated healthcare components dedicated to injured patients, including prehospital care services, dedicated trauma care-capable hospitals, trauma-care performance appraisal systems, effective communication structures for triaging patients, rehabilitation services designed to optimise injury outcomes, and injury prevention measures. Reports indicate that despite LMICs bearing the greatest trauma burden, there are greater limitations in skills, resources, and organisational capacity. Mwandri’s study assessed the health-care systems in Botswana and Tanzania, and the need to implement the proposed Afrocentric systems which take into consideration the unique conditions in African countries including high rates of infectious diseases, inadequate personnel, and deficiencies in skills and other resources which hinder trauma care delivery.

According to Mwandri: ‘Afrocentric trauma systems are based on possible available resources and existing traditional and non-traditional structures. They address cultures and mobilise communities and political support to forge cooperation among various players in order to address regionalisation of trauma care.’

Tanzania’s healthcare system is similar to other LMICs and is based on a decentralised model. Due to its burgeoning population, the rate of trauma injuries is high and the country has established an Emergency Medicine training programme and developed emergency medicine departments in most major hospitals. ‘However, so far there are no organised trauma system models in place, trauma care training is deficient and trauma-surgery specialisation among health professionals has yet to start,’ said Mwandri.

In contrast, Botswana, an “upper” middle-income country in sub-Saharan Africa, enjoys higher levels of socio-economic development, a quality road network country-wide, and much lower population density. Nonetheless, the country suffers from competing healthcare needs from infectious diseases in addition to the burden of trauma disease. Botswana recently developed Emergency Medicine physician training and established emergency medicine departments in major hospitals. Unlike other LMICs, the country boasts a subsidised health-care system and a functional Motor Vehicle Accident Fund.

Mwandri’s study found that LMICs could benefit from formalised trauma systems over time. He said: ‘Deficiencies in triaging, recording of patient data, funding, personnel knowledge and skills, hospital technical capacities and organisation of care could be managed by instituting trauma system approaches advised by the World Health Organization, and by borrowing from other functional trauma systems worldwide. Utilising existing opportunities and resources in individual countries may create Afrocentric systems that use existing systems and ensure affordability and an improvement in overall patient outcomes.’

Apart from conducting research, Mwandri is a practicing surgeon in Tanzania and works for the International Committee Red Cross (ICRC) on a short contract basis in various LMICs. Prior to commencing his PhD research, he was a full-time lecturer at the University of Botswana and an adjunct clinician at Princes Marina Hospital in Botswana.

Words: MaryAnn Francis

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PhD Study Finds MDR Escherichia coli in Waste Water Treatment Plants in KZN

PhD Study Finds MDR Escherichia coli in Waste Water Treatment Plants in KZN
Dr Joshua Mbanga graduated with a doctoral degree in Medical Microbiology.

Dr Joshua Mbanga graduated with a PhD in Medical Microbiology for his longitudinal environmental surveillance of antibiotic resistance, specifically in water environments near healthcare facilities and intensive food animal production systems in the uMgungundlovu District, KwaZulu-Natal.

This is the first longitudinal study of its kind in South Africa and it offers significant new knowledge which is useful in the general realm of environmental health management in South Africa. This PhD was part of the research programme on Antibiotic Resistance and One Health led by Professor Sabiha Essack.

According to one of the examiners of the thesis, Mbanga’s study is timely and important in Africa as few studies have been conducted on antibiotic-resistant bacteria (ARB) and antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) in wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) and water environments despite the fact that they pose a significant threat to people’s health and the continent’s growth and economic development.

The WWTP investigated in this study is the largest in Pietermaritzburg with its runoff released into the Msunduzi River, a tributary that ultimately discharges into the Umgeni River. Upstream from the WWTP, the Msunduzi River receives runo? from rural communities, agricultural areas, urban municipalities (including several hospitals and community health centres), and numerous informal settlements along the river. The surface water is a key water source for domestic, agricultural, and recreational purposes for inhabitants of the several informal settlements along its banks.

Water samples were collected fortnightly for seven months from May to November 2018. A total of 580 E. coli isolates were identi?ed and found to be resistant to a panel of 20 antibiotics. All the E. coli isolates harboured ARGs which included the ß-lactamases.

According to Mbanga: ‘The occurrence of pathogenic and multidrug-resistant (MDR) isolates in the WWTP e?uent and the associated river is a public health concern. E. coli isolates carry several ARGs and virulence genes. The ?ndings of this study may not be typical of all WWTPs and river systems in South Africa or beyond but form a basis for the need for surveillance systems that employ advanced technologies like whole-genome sequencing to understand the genetics of resistant bacteria found in the environment. Surveillance of ARB in wastewater and associated surface waters could serve as a proxy to understand the type of antibiotic resistance found within the local population and how this changes over time.

‘Furthermore, with inadequately maintained sanitation infrastructure, low-and middle-income countries and emerging economies like South Africa face challenges with the release of untreated or poorly treated e?uent into the environment. This may be a driver for the dissemination of antibiotic resistance in these settings. Constant monitoring of WWTPs for the release of MDR bacteria into rivers via their e?uents is important as it indicates what is disseminated to the environment,’ he said.

Mbanga is currently working at the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Applied Biology and Biochemistry. He is also a registered Clinical Scientist with the Medical Laboratory and Clinical Scientists Council, Zimbabwe. A proud father to his daughter, Langelihle Janice, Mbanga enjoys nature walks, watching football (especially his favorite team Real Madrid), cooking, and listening to music.

‘Achieving a project like the one carried out by Mbanga requires extreme patience, devotion and maturity. Joshua put these three qualities together to demonstrate his contribution to environmental health in South Africa and Science as a whole. Applying basic microbiology techniques, while mastering the most advanced ones in the field, are challenges that Joshua overcame. He is a perfect example that younger scientists are encouraged to follow. There is no doubt he is heading for the peak of the scientific ladder,’ said one of Mbanga’s supervisors, Dr Luther King Abia Akebe.

Words: MaryAnn Francis

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Complementary Herbal Medicines used by HIV-positive Patients under the Spotlight

Complementary Herbal Medicines used by HIV-positive Patients under the Spotlight
Dr Idowu Kehinde Ademola.

Dr Idowu Kehinde Ademola’s PhD in Medicine (Virology) focused on the pharmacokinetic influence of phytochemical components from complementary herbal medicines used by HIV-positive patients in South Africa on the drug-metabolising proteins of HIV-1 protease drugs.

The study found that these phytochemical components could either inhibit or induce the drug-metabolising proteins, thereby altering the plasma concentrations of HIV-1 protease drugs.

‘I am proud of this accomplishment,’ he said. ‘It has been my desire to contribute to the field of infectious disease and when the opportunity arose to study virology, I embraced it.’

He added that while his PhD journey was not a smooth one, with the help of God, determination, and his wonderful supervisors, Professors Michelle Gordon and Manimbulu Nlooto, he overcame the challenges. He is a proud husband to his supportive wife, Deborah Abiol and has been blessed with a child, Eriifeoluwasimi Mayer.

‘My study experience at UKZN was a great one, filled with joy and wonderful memories.’

Words: Lihle Sosibo

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Top Achiever in Biochemistry

Top Achiever in Biochemistry
Ms Humaira Vawda.

Miss Humaira Vawda attained her B Med Science Honours degree summa cum laude and was the top overall achiever in Honours in Biochemistry in the School of Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences.

Vawda is currently studying towards her master’s degree which focuses on cancer drug research. While she does not know what the future holds, she hopes to build her academic profile.

‘I loved science at school and was interested in studying the human body. I also wanted to make an impact in the scientific world. In second year, I took my first Biochemistry module and really enjoyed it. In my third year I did a course that involved basic Medical Biochemistry and I fell in love and decided to pursue my honours in this field.’

Vawda was awarded a scholarship from UKZN as well as an external bursary. Her undergraduate degree was awarded cum laude and she achieved Deans’ Commendations in her first and third-year of study. In her honours’ year, she received certificates of merit for all her modules and her research project and was awarded funding by the National Research Foundation. 

’Although I didn’t encounter major challenges during my studies, I struggled for a while to find my academic niche,’ said Vawda who added that she draws strength from her family and friends, and believes that God is always with her.

Words: Lihle Sosibo

Photograph: Supplied


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PhD Explores Fitness for Purpose of South African Anaesthesiologists

PhD Explores Fitness for Purpose of South African Anaesthesiologists
Dr Nicola Ann Kalafatis whose study aimed to establish whether South African anaesthesiologists are able to function as specialists after graduation.

Dr Nicola Ann Kalafatis obtained a PhD in Anesthesiology for her thesis on Fitness for Purpose of South African Anaesthesiologists.

The study aimed to establish whether South African anaesthesiologists are able to function as specialists after graduation. The findings revealed that graduates’ assessment of their fitness for purpose did not align with those of their seniors. Despite being licenced to practice, some exited their training programme without the necessary competencies to perform as specialists. This problem is not unique to South Africa.

Kalafatis said her final year of study coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, creating new emotional and physical stressors. However, the support she received at home as well as her place of work (COVID ICU at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital) enabled her to persevere.

‘My head of unit, Dr Santosh Pershad was particularly supportive and allowed a work schedule that afforded me a work-life balance. I am also greatly indebted to my supervisors, Professors TE Sommerville and PD Gopalan for their unfailing support and guidance not only during the difficult time of the pandemic, but throughout the research period. They ensured that I remained focused and challenged me and my thinking continuously. I am also grateful to the South African Society of Anaesthesiologists (SASA) who awarded me a research grant.’

Kalafatis is an Anaesthesiologist and Intensivist at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital and an honorary lecturer in UKZN’s Discipline of Anaesthesiology and Critical Care. She is a member of the College of Anaesthetists of South Africa Committee that is currently reviewing the anaesthesiology curriculum which enables her to share the knowledge she has gained from her research. She hopes that future graduates will benefit from the findings and that they will assist in training specialists who are fit for purpose.

Married to Mike and a step-mother to Caraidh, Caitlin and Vincent, Kalafatis also has three god-children. ‘They all give me overwhelming joy! My hobbies are gardening and baking, and I dream of one day having my own nursery with a tea garden. I am drawn to nature and the stillness and calm it provides is a respite from the busyness of my life.’

Words: Lihle Sosibo

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Targeted STI Management Approach Reduces Genital Infections and Pro-inflammatory Cytokines

Targeted STI Management Approach Reduces Genital Infections and Pro-inflammatory Cytokines
Doctor of Philosophy (Medical Microbiology) graduate, Dr Andile Ntombikhona Mtshali.

Dr Andile Ntombikhona Mtshali regards her Doctor of Philosophy degree in Health Sciences (Medical Microbiology) as another step in her journey to become a successful research scientist.

Her study aimed to determine the impact of enhanced management of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) to restore the genital microbiome on genital cytokines and the genital microbiome among South African women at high risk of contracting HIV.

The study showed that a targeted STI management approach improved infection management and effectively reduced genital concentrations of pro-inflammatory cytokines which are HIV-risk factors. In contrast, bacterial vaginosis treatment induced a short-term shift in the vaginal microbiota and mucosal cytokines, implying the need for alternative antimicrobial treatment of bacterial vaginosis (BV). This was the first study to assess the impact of enhanced STI and BV management and their impact on genital inflammation in women.

Hailing from Swart-Mfolozi in Vryheid, KwaZulu-Natal, Mtshali is currently doing post-doctoral fellowship training at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) and aspires to become an independent scientist.

She described her PhD journey as a mix of exciting and stressful moments. ‘I encountered countless challenges, but bearing in mind that a PhD is a process that takes time and patience kept me going. There were times I was vulnerable, but with support, I bounced back.’

Her interest in research on STIs was sparked during her honours studies, when she was exposed to laboratory diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections.

Mtshali thanked her supervisors, Drs Lenine Liebenberg and Sinaye Ngcapu, and her family for their support. ‘My family gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person; they believed in me. They remain my number one cheerleaders.’

Words: Lihle Sosibo

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Global Shapers Community Curator Graduates with PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry

Global Shapers Community Curator Graduates with PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry
Dr Clement Agoni at the computer lab on UKZN’s Westville campus.

Dr Clement Agoni, a member of the World Economic Forum’s initiative Global Shapers Community where he currently serves as its curator, graduated with a PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry for his study titled: Computer-Aided Approaches In Drug Design: The Exigent Way Forward: Dynamic Perspectives into the Mechanistic Activities of Small Molecule Inhibitors Toward Antiviral, Antitubercular and Anticancer Therapeutic Interventions.

The study was supervised by renowned pharmaceutical chemist, Professor Mahmoud Soliman, Head of UKZN’s Molecular Bio-Computation and Drug Design Laboratory.

Ghanaian-born Agoni is a medical laboratory scientist with an innate passion for youth and community development. He graduated with a master's degree in Pharmaceutical Chemistry summa cum laude. With several peer-reviewed research articles to his credit, Agoni’s research focuses on the applications of computer-aided techniques to explore drug-target interactions towards the design of new and improved therapeutic agents for diseases of global health concern such as tuberculosis, cancer, and viral infections. His extensive research output during his doctoral study culminated in him being ranked amongst UKZN’s top 10 published students in 2019.

Despite the availability of several therapeutic interventions against viral infections, tuberculosis and cancer still feature prominently in the top 10 global causes of death. Their persistence has been due to chemotherapeutic resistance and associated toxic effects. Agoni’s study explored various computer aided drug design (CADD) techniques which combine with experimental methods to potentially accelerate the drug discovery of novel inhibitors that overcome the challenges associated with existing conventional therapeutic remedies against these diseases.

Agoni offers crucial atomistic and structural insights that could aid in designing small molecule inhibitors against the respective biological targets which also possess improved therapeutic properties. His study also defined these therapeutic targets’ binding landscape and presented a prospective design of selective and unique inhibitors with critical pharmacophoric features that will aid in developing targeted and effective small molecule inhibitors towards overcoming chemotherapeutic resistance and minimising toxicity effects.

Agoni has championed many community projects including medical outreach initiatives and mental health awareness drives in Umlazi, beach clean-ups, and a COVID-19 response initiative dubbed “ShapersCare”, which provided food hampers to households during the COVID-19 national lockdown. He currently serves on a 11-member international COVID-19 Steering Committee of the Global Shapers Community tasked to inspire, empower and connect the Global Shapers Community's work on COVID-19.

He has also trained as a Climate Reality Leader under the Climate Reality project of former United States Vice-President, Al Gore tasked to lead discussions on climate crisis issues through seminars, presentations, and stakeholder deliberations.

Agoni said: ‘I owe my achievements to the expert guidance of Professor Mahmoud Soliman, who also provided a fatherly mentorship during the course of my studies. I must acknowledge the support of my family who have painstakingly endured these long years in school. I will always seek to “live a life that leaves a legacy (L3)” regardless of my location on the globe.’

Words: MaryAnn Francis

Photograph: Rogan Ward 


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Hospital Effluent Water found to Discharge Multidrug Resistant Bacterium into Municipal Treatment Plants

Hospital Effluent Water found to Discharge Multidrug Resistant Bacterium into Municipal Treatment Plants
Nigerian-born academic, Dr Eze Emmanuel Chima.

Dr Eze Emmanuel Chima’s PhD research in Medical Microbiology found that hospital effluent water discharged into municipal waste treatment plants contained multidrug resistant (MDR), extensively drug resistant(XDR) and pan-drug resistant(PDR) strains of biofilm forming Acinetobacter baumannii.

‘I feel a great sense of fulfillment and joy at having completed this degree,’ he said. ‘At times, it seemed impossible. I hope to make a difference in medical research through the design of novel approaches for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of infectious disease.’

Chima chose to study microbiology and major in medical research because he had personally experienced infection and how it can alter a person’s life. ‘There are several emerging and re-emerging pathogenic diseases that have a significant social, health and economic impact on people’s lives. The earlier we ask important questions about these pathogens, and get definite answers, the better for all of us.

‘I encountered several challenges, and there were reasons to cry, but also to be happy. Patience, persistence, focus, hard work and the belief that the degree is worth the sacrifice made me overcome. I had fun, met great friends and also learnt from unpleasant experiences. UKZN is a great Institution which provides all the facilities necessary for research excellence.’

Chima is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Water and Wastewater Technology at the Durban University of Technology where he is studying microplastic-biofilm interaction in drinking water using metagenomics and transcriptomic approaches.

His study was supervised by Professors Manormoney Pillay and Mohamed El Zowalaty.

The Nigerian-born academic thanked his supportive family, describing his father, Elder IG Eze as his inspiration and his mother, Catherine Eze as his comfort. He enjoys reading, discussing politics and playing chess.

Words: Lihle Sosibo

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Hospital-Acquired Infections Affect KZN’s Hospital Healthcare Quality, Finds Study

Hospital-Acquired Infections Affect KZN’s Hospital Healthcare Quality, Finds Study
Dr Christiana Shobo graduated with a doctoral degree in Medical Microbiology.

Dr Christiana Shobo from UKZN’s Antimicrobial Research Unit, graduated with a PhD in Medical Microbiology for her study titled: Enterococcus sp. Contamination Surveillance in Different Levels of Healthcare in eThekwini District, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) South Africa.

It investigated the functional profile and diversity of bacteria from various inanimate environmental sources from two different wards in public hospitals at various healthcare levels in the eThekwini District.

Hospital-acquired infections (healthcare-associated infections) are nosocomially acquired infections that are not present or incubating at the time of admission to a hospital but occur within 72 hours of admission. These infections are caught in a hospital and are potentially caused by organisms that are resistant to antibiotics.

Samples were collected for a period of three months (September – November 2017) from four levels of healthcare in the eThekwini District. The intensive care units and paediatric wards formed part of this study. A total of 620 swabs were collected from areas frequently touched by healthcare workers and patients. These sites included linen from occupied and unoccupied beds, drip stands, patient files, ward phones, ventilators, nurses' tables, blood pressure apparatus, sinks, linen room door handles and mops.

Antibiotic resistance patterns in the Enterococcus spp. isolates were determined by the Kirby-Bauer disk diffusion method against 14 antibiotics as recommended by the Clinical and Laboratory Standard Institute guidelines. The results indicated that 37 samples from E. faecalis showed intermediate resistance to the antibiotic, vancomycin.

Shobo’s study emphasises the urgent need to optimise infection prevention and control measures to intercept or moderate the spread of bacteria in hospital environments. She has published these findings in international high impact peer-reviewed journals and has further papers in the publishing process.

Shobo was born in Lagos, Nigeria. She obtained a National Diploma and Higher National Diploma in Microbiology from the Moshood Abiola Polytechnic, Abeokuta, Nigeria and a Master of Medical Science degree in Medical Microbiology summa cum laude from UKZN. She recently became a certified professional of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science and the Medical Laboratory Professionals’ Association of Ontario.

Shobo, who enjoys watching movies, reading novels and cooking is a wife and mother of two boys (Demilade and Damisire). She is currently working at the Eastern Ontario Regional Laboratory and Children hospital of Eastern Ontario, Ottawa, Canada in the microbiology/virology laboratories as a medical laboratory and molecular technician.

She said: ‘I would like to acknowledge my supervisors, Dr Linda Bester and Professor Sabiha Essack for their support and synergetic supervisory roles during the PhD programme. I couldn’t feel more honoured to be Dr Bester’s first PhD graduate. My thanks go to the Young Researcher’s Grant of the College of Health Sciences for sponsorship of the study. Special thanks to my very supportive husband, Dr Adeola Shobo, who by the way graduated with his PhD (Pharmaceutical Chemistry) from UKZN in 2016. As a fellow scientist, his pivotal role made a huge difference to the success of my study and this is greatly appreciated. In addition, I would like to thank members of the Awojirin and Shobo families for their prayers, support and love during this PhD programme; you are indeed amazing. Finally, to my late parents, both of whom I lost during my programmes at UKZN, your efforts yielded good fruit and I am most grateful. May your souls continue to rest in peace. To God be all the glory!’

Words: MaryAnn Francis

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Antibiotic Resistance in CoNS Earns Student a Doctoral Degree

Antibiotic Resistance in CoNS Earns Student a Doctoral Degree
Dr Jonathan Asante graduated with a PhD in Medical Microbiology.

Dr Jonathan Asante was awarded a PhD in Medical Microbiology for his study titled: Molecular and Genomic Analysis of Clinical Multidrug-Resistant Coagulase-Negative Staphylococci from the uMgungundlovu District in the KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa.

His study is particularly important as it highlights alarming resistance to antibiotics by Coagulase-negative staphylococci (CoNS) found in clinical settings.

The study forms part of the ongoing work on antimicrobial resistance in UKZN’s Antimicrobial Research Unit under the directorship of Professor Sabiha Essack, the South African Research Chair in Antibiotic Resistance and One Health. Asante said, ‘Antibiotic resistance has become a subject of global interest, especially as the use of antibiotics continues to rise in both clinical and veterinary practice, making infections caused by bacteria increasingly difficult to treat. A group of bacteria referred to as CoNS are among the most recovered bacteria in microbiology laboratories. They are increasingly being recognised for the ability to cause infections that are resistant to multiple antibiotics, especially among people with compromised immune systems and those hospitalised for long periods.’

Asante collected 89 clinical CoNS isolates from three hospitals within the uMgungundlovu District between October 2019 and February 2020. Antibiotic susceptibility testing was done against a panel of 20 antibiotics according to the Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute guidelines.

The results indicated that Staphylococcus epidermidis was the most abundant CoNS species isolated. Multidrug resistance was observed in 76.4% of isolates, with 51 antibiograms observed. The resistance genes mecAblaZerm(A)erm(B)erm(C)msr(A)aac(6')-aph(2''), and fosB, among others, were detected and corroborated the observed phenotypes. A large number of bacteria studied were resistant to multiple antibiotics including ß-lactams, ciprofloxacin and azithromycin.

Asante commented: ‘The whole-genome sequence technique used enabled us to fill the information gap on molecular mechanisms of resistance and virulence, their mobilisation through mobile genetic elements and strain types and phylogenies. The study resulted in the publication of articles in reputable peer-reviewed journals, with some currently under review. This has added new knowledge to what is already known and calls for rigorous surveillance and containment measures.’

Asante, who grew up in the eastern part of Ghana, is a pharmacist by profession. His prior qualifications include a Bachelor of Pharmacy from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and a Master of Pharmacy (Pharmaceutical Microbiology) at UKZN.

He was inspired at an early age to pursue a career in the Sciences. ‘I have always had a passion and motivation to improve the daily lives of people through studies and research. Fascinated by my foremost research experience at the undergraduate level, I resolved to blend academia and research in my practice as a pharmacist. This, I believe will enable me to become useful to society in three main areas of life: health, education and continual knowledge acquisition or advancement through an investigation of nature. This led me to pursue a PhD,’ said Asante who enjoys watching educative documentaries, participating in sports, hiking, and spending time in nature.

‘Jonathan was the kind of student who knew what he wanted from the start and showed resilience to overcome all the hurdles during the PhD journey,’ said Dr Daniel Amoako, co-supervisor of the study. ‘His level of independence, in-depth technical knowledge, analytical thinking and problem-solving skills makes him the ideal doctoral candidate every supervisor would want to mentor. I feel proud in guiding him to realise his dream and have no doubt that he will excel in his academic career.’

Words: MaryAnn Francis

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Kidney Disease a Significant Cause of Morbidity and Mortality in African Children

Kidney Disease a Significant Cause of Morbidity and Mortality in African Children
Dr Louansha Nandlal obtained her Doctor of Philosophy (Medicine) degree.

‘My PhD journey has been an emotional roller-coaster but I am extremely proud of not being defeated by circumstances. This achievement is the culmination of many hours of hard work, discipline and perseverance. Not only did my degree teach me the fundamentals of being a medical scientist, but it has also humbled me and put me in situations where I grew as an individual,’ said Dr Louansha Nandlal on obtaining her Doctor of Philosophy (Medicine) degree.

Her study, which assessed the clinical and genetic profile of the top 10 podocyte genes implicated in congenital nephrotic syndrome (CNS) and steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome (SRNS), was supervised by Professor T Naicker and Dr V Ramsuran.

Nandlal was also actively involved in COVID-19 testing at UKZN and received an appreciation award from the College of Health Sciences.

Nephrotic Syndrome (NS) is a kidney disease characterised by heavy proteinuria, hypoalbuminemia, oedema and hyperlipidaemia. In South Africa, CNS and SRNS are a significant cause of morbidity and mortality, particularly among African children.

The study found that mutations in NPHS1, NPHS2 and CD2AP genes accounted for 44.44% of congenital NS cases, with the NPHS2 p.V260E mutation a cause of 23.81% of steroid-resistant NS among children of African ancestry. Sequencing NPHS2 p. V260E in children of African ancestry has a predictor test value for the detection of congenital NS and SRNS. Detection of pathogenic mutations will also obviate the need for a kidney biopsy and the use of additional immunosuppressant drugs, thus avoiding an invasive procedure and the serious adverse effects of treatment. Precision genetic diagnosis will enable clinicians to provide genetic counselling, detect carriers, and propose prenatal diagnosis to couples at risk.

This is the largest study in a paediatric South African population that performed intensive mutational sequencing of individuals with congenital and steroid-resistant NS.

Twenty-seven-year-old Nandlal is currently a post-doctoral fellow under the mentorship of Ramsuran. She is focusing on the micro RNA profiles of HIV-infected individuals.

‘Medical science was always a childhood dream for me. Alongside this, I’ve always had a genuine interest in health and the causes of diseases. I hope that my research findings will make a difference in South Africa’s healthcare sector, significantly reducing morbidity and mortality rates. I feel that individuals are more dedicated when they are passionate about a career path.’

She believes that her PhD is a stepping stone to greater achievements and would like to run her own research unit with the aim of improving the lives of communities.

Words: Lihle Sosibo

Photograph: Supplied


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PhD Focuses on Foot Assessment and Treatment for People with Diabetes

PhD Focuses on Foot Assessment and Treatment for People with Diabetes
PhD in Clinical Medicine graduate, Dr Anette Telmo Thompson.

Dr Anette Telmo Thompson was awarded a PhD in Clinical Medicine for her multi-faceted study on Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD), complication for people living with diabetes.

The first part of her research involved screening for PAD using handheld Doppler and the Ankle Brachial Index (ABI), a sensitive diagnostic metric that is not often used in South Africa. It was found that 94% of the patients with diabetes had signs of previously unknown early as well as established PAD. The second part of the study examined anatomical, physiological and footwear risk factors for PAD. For the first time, the function of the dorsiflexion of the hallux was linked to the function and phases of gait and venous return in the foot via the foot venous pump.

The third part of the study investigated how the metatarsal parabola can influence hallux dorsiflexion. The results suggest that diabetic foot assessments should include methods to test for the presence or incompleteness of metatarsal parabolae. In the fourth section of the study, Thompson examined metatarsal lengths from 3D foot measurement data. Compared to data used for footwear manufacture, the results showed that the footwear flexion position often does not match the anatomical flexion position of a patient. Mismatched footwear flexion impedes hallux dorsiflexion and thereby foot haemodynamics. Finally, the study calculated what the lack of podiatry and thus poor delivery of diabetic foot care is costing South Africa. An audit conducted for a 5 year period (from 2013 to 2017) of diabetes-related lower limb amputations at Greys Hospital was used to estimate a national cost of some R70 billion.

Born and raised in Johannesburg, Thompson is the Clinical Director for Podiatric Medicine at the Netcare Umhlanga Hospital Diabetes and Endocrinology Centre and the Podiatric Medicine Clinic at Ahmed Al-Kadi Private Hospital. She also contributes research to a non-profit organisation to improve footwear designs for children and for industrial footwear. She hopes that her PhD findings will influence healthcare policy in respect of podiatry, future guidelines on clinical foot examination, patient education and shoe design.

Thompson noted that diabetes damages the kidneys, heart, nerves, eyes and feet, and occurs in a quarter of the adult population in some sub-Saharan African countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the diabetes population will grow to 18 million in Africa by 2030. However, only half of those with diabetes are diagnosed and only one in 10 receives treatment. Untreated, diabetes often progresses to disability, limb loss and early death.

‘The need for answers is both important and urgent. Why is there such poor awareness of this disease? Why do patients present with peripheral vascular disease complications so late? Can diabetes lower limb complications be identified earlier through foot screening and assessment protocols? What improvements in healthcare policy and approaches to treatment may lower the rate of amputations? My study was motivated by the desire to find answers so that I can better serve my patients,’ said Thompson.

She described studying at UKZN as a wonderful experience and expressed her thanks to Professor Colleen Aldous (UKZN) and Dr Bernhard Zipfel (University of the Witwatersrand) for their thoughtful coaching and encouragement.

‘I benefited greatly from the cheerful and invaluable support of University staff and librarians. A special thanks to Msizi Khumalo, Praba Naidoo, Richard Beharilal and Veronica Jantjies, as well as my fellow students in the late night “Pomodoro”. My appreciation and sense of belonging extends to the University itself in which I have found a home of like-minded colleagues.’

Words: Lihle Sosibo

Photograph: Supplied


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Research Highlights the Importance of Genes in Disease Susceptibility

Research Highlights the Importance of Genes in Disease Susceptibility
Dr Amos Marume.

Senior lecturer in the Discipline of Pharmacology within the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences at the University of Zimbabwe, Dr Amos Marume was awarded a PhD in Medical Microbiology (Immunogenetics and Immunoepidemiology) by UKZN for his research on the impact of host genetic factors in helminthic disease susceptibility (schistosomiasis).

His research was supervised by Dr Jaclyn Mann and Professor Takafira Mduluza.

The study’s findings highlight the importance of genes in disease susceptibility as well as the complexity of such genetic influence and the need for Zimbabwe’s public health system to address schistosomiasis.

Marume said he is delighted with his achievement and plans to remain in academia. He aims to empower others through research and training and to contribute further to public health, particularly in applied microbiology and pharmaceutical biotechnology.

The last born of seven children, the 39-year-old is a father of six. He describes himself as a Christian who embraces all people as equal.

Words: Lihle Sosibo

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Study Explores Child and Adolescent Mental Health

Study Explores Child and Adolescent Mental Health
Passionate child and adolescent mental health researcher, Dr Gbotemi Babatunde.

Dr Gbotemi Babatunde was awarded a PhD for her study titled: An Exploration of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Care Services in a Low Resource District in South Africa.

The study was supervised by global mental health expert Professor Inge Petersen.

Using a resource-constrained district in South Africa as a case study, Babatunde investigated the current state of child and adolescent mental health (CAMH); available resources and the range of services provided; existing pathways to CAMH care; and the barriers and facilitators of access.

The study engaged with key stakeholders (caregivers, health-care workers, teachers, social workers, and community representatives) to document their experiences of providing and accessing CAMH services and their perceptions of the quality of CAMH services available in the district.

Babatunde said a participatory workshop was held with stakeholders from the Departments of Health, Education, and Social Development to identify potential strategies to address CAMH service bottlenecks.

‘The suggested strategies were used to map a Theory of Constraints (ToC) model that the district could use to develop a feasible district CAMH plan that will potentially improve access to CAMH services,’ she said.

She added that data collection was a learning experience as she learnt to interact and build trust with participants and navigate different odds to acquire rich data.

‘The most exciting part was the participatory workshop. Bringing all the stakeholders together to brainstorm possible solutions to the identified challenges was fulfilling. I look forward to returning to the district to present the ToC logic model to the participants, refine it, and hand it over to them for implementation,’ said Babatunde.

She has been awarded a College of Health Sciences postdoctoral fellowship. ‘My postdoctoral research will build on the PhD findings, focusing on extending the Community Mental Health Education and Detection (CMED) tool developed by the Southern African Research Consortium for Mental health INTegration (S-MhINT) to include CAMH conditions,’ she said.

‘The proposed psychoeducation intervention will educate children and adolescents, parents/caregivers, and the community to improve mental health literacy and facilitate early identification and effective management of CAMH conditions.’

She said despite the severe consequences of under-prioritising CAMH problems, mental health services for children and adolescents remain scarce in low resource settings. 

‘I will like to be involved in studies focused on developing prevention, early identification, treatment, and CAMH system strengthening interventions, particularly at the community level.’

Babatunde received her honours and master’s degrees at UKZN. She developed a passion for child and adolescent mental health research during her master’s. She thanked Petersen for her support throughout her study.

Words: Nombuso Dlamini

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PhD Study Shines the Spotlight on Pregnant Adolescent Girls

PhD Study Shines the Spotlight on Pregnant Adolescent Girls
Newly capped Dr Joyce Twahafifwa Shatilwe.

Dr Joyce Twahafifwa Shatilwe graduated with a PhD degree in Public Health following her study titled: Access and Utilisation of Maternal and Child Health Care information provided to Adolescent Girls during Pregnancy in Ohangwena Region, Namibia.

Supervised by Professor Tivani Mashamba-Thompson, the study examined the barriers and challenges faced by adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 in accessing and utilising maternal and child health-care information (MCHI) during pregnancy.

‘The majority of adolescent girls have no knowledge of what to do next when they fall pregnant and as a result, they access maternal health services very late, leading to complications that could have been identified and prevented,’ said Shatilwe.

The study was guided by the Andersen and Newman model of healthcare utilisation. The scoping review revealed the lack of research on accessibility and utilisation of maternal and child health-care information among adolescent girls during pregnancy. ‘Strategies such as telemedicine and text messages were found to be effective in encouraging pregnant girls to access such services.’

The cross-sectional study found that thedistance to the nearest health facility, a lack of transport and poor road infrastructure to access maternal healthcare were challenges for a majority of the participants.

Shatilwe hopes that her findings and recommendations will assist different stakeholders to identify strategies to empower adolescent girls to access and utilise information during their pregnancy and to be well prepared before they fall pregnant.

She is currently reaching out to academic institutions for opportunities to assist with research coaching, mentoring and supervising of master’s and PhD students. She holds three master’s degrees, a postgraduate diploma in Project Management and a Bachelors of Nursing as well as a Diploma in General Nursing and mentors a number of young people.

Shatilwe is married and has five girls, three of whom are at university and two at secondary school.

Words: Nombuso Dlamini

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Top Speech-Language Therapy Graduate

Top Speech-Language Therapy Graduate
Ms Latara Joseph graduated cum laude.

‘It is a huge achievement to graduate cum laude and be recognised as one of the top students in my class,’ said Bachelor of Speech-Language Pathology graduate, Ms Latara Joseph.

‘I believe in doing my best in everything I do and constantly striving to improve myself. This achievement is testimony that hard work, consistency and determination are key to succeeding,’ said Joseph. ‘I am elated that my hard work, stress, and sacrifices have culminated in this accomplishment. I share it with my family who supported me throughout this journey.’

Her future aspirations include achieving her Master’s in Speech-Language Pathology; founding an organisation that makes communication, feeding and swallowing disorders more visible in society; creating awareness of the profession and improving access to speech therapy services.

‘Ultimately, I aspire to use my professional skills and the knowledge obtained from my previous and current degrees to become an agent for change in the transformation of our country’s health sector,’ she said.

Joseph previously completed a Bachelor of Social Science majoring in Industrial and Clinical Psychology and an Honours degree in Psychology at UKZN. During her academic career she was awarded several certificates of merit and a Golden Key Award.

Whilst studying, she volunteered at several rehabilitation centers. Her interest in Speech Therapy was sparked when she volunteered at Headway, a rehabilitation centre for people with acquired brain injuries and stroke victims. ‘I was fascinated by the services that a speech therapist provides. Furthermore, working with individuals with varying disabilities taught me to focus on ability rather than disability,’ she said.

‘One of the major challenges was completing my final-year during a global pandemic and a time of much uncertainty. I experienced increased levels of anxiety and stress which I channeled into coping with the demands of the adapted curriculum and working even harder. I realised that it is extremely important to take care of one’s wellbeing. I am grateful for the support of my family and friends, my lecturers and my classmates.’

Joseph is currently completing her community service at Ladysmith Provincial Hospital, KwaZulu-Natal.

‘I am thoroughly enjoying working in such a rewarding environment where I am constantly challenged to adapt the knowledge and skills acquired during my training. I have grown an interest in working in the areas of acquired communication disorders and dysphagia,’ she said. 

Words: Nombuso Dlamini

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Study Investigates Joint Spatial-Temporal Modelling of Adverse Pregnancy Outcomes

Study Investigates Joint Spatial-Temporal Modelling of Adverse Pregnancy Outcomes
Dr Julius Nyerere Odhiambo.

Dr Julius Nyerere Odhiambo was awarded a PhD in Public Health for his study titled titled: Joint Spatial-Temporal Modelling of Adverse Pregnancy Outcomes and Related Risk Factors in Kenya.

Supervised by Professor Benn Sartorius, Nyerere sought to unmask the joint burden of adverse outcomes in pregnancy and related risk factors using advanced Bayesian space-time methods. The study supports the growing evidence-base for precision public health using routine health metrics, and the need for integrated suites of interventions at policy-relevant thresholds to reduce missed opportunities and simultaneously address the healthcare needs of women of child-bearing age.

‘Amidst Kenya’s diverse and growing population of women of childbearing age, the precise burden of adverse pregnancy outcomes has remained elusive in recent decades with Kenya falling short in its attempt to achieve Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 4 targets for both maternal and child health,’ said Nyerere.

He said the joint spatio-temporal model highlighted a non-uniform risk across all adverse pregnancy outcomes that may have been driven by demand side barriers and supply side challenges, with low-resource and malaria prone sub-counties being disproportionately more vulnerable to adverse pregnancy outcomes.

According to Nyerere, this study presents the first comprehensive sub-national estimates of adverse pregnancy outcomes in Kenya, often concealed by national and county estimates.

‘I advance both methodology and practice by reviewing and demonstrating the applicability of Bayesian hierarchical models in an environment of sparse/incomplete routinely collected data. By identifying areas with elevated risks and data gaps, our estimates not only assert the need to bolster maternal health programmes in the identified high-risk sub-counties, but also provide a baseline against which to assess progress towards the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals. Furthermore, our joint spatio-temporal model found evidence of shared risk factors that may contribute to adverse pregnancy outcomes.’

Nyerere is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Technical University of Kenya and a collaborator with the Global Burden of Disease Network at the Institute for Health Metric and Evaluation, at the University of Washington.

‘I would like to develop spatial and spatio-temporal statistical methods to understand the burden of disease/health outcomes and associated determinants at finer spatial and temporal scales. I also seek to explore interactive visualisation applications for reproducible research and communication. This will contribute to building resilient health systems that are responsive to population health needs, particularly in resource constrained settings,’ he added.

Nyerere was born and raised in the mountainous “Muksero-Kalando” village in western Kenya. He said he is deeply indebted to his supervisor: ‘I was primarily inspired by his research prowess and our converging interest in spatial epidemiology cemented my quest to join UKZN. The incredible support and research ecosystem at the College of Health Sciences made my study enjoyable and interesting.’

Words: Nombuso Dlamini

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Best Overall Achiever in Third-Year Physiology

Best Overall Achiever in Third-Year Physiology
Ms Emily Ruth Higgitt.

‘I am very proud of what I have achieved. When I started my degree, I planned to do my best. This is the outcome of my hard work,’ said Ms Emily Ruth Higgitt who obtained a Bachelor of Medical Science (Physiology) summa cum laude and was named the Best Overall Achiever in third-year.

Higgitt is currently pursuing her Honours in Medical Science (Neuroscience and Physiology) at the University of Cape Town and hopes to use her knowledge to make an impactful contribution to science and South African society.

She is passionate about neuroscience and children and intends to pursue research on the effects of stress on the development of young children. She is also interested in neurodevelopment and hopes to investigate this field in the near future.

‘The national lockdown put additional pressure on me to work more independently and sharpen my focus. I drew my strength from my family and friends, who were always there to support me. During lockdown, my friends and classmates helped me a lot.’

Higgins has volunteered at the Upper Highway Baby Home which takes care of young orphans until they find their forever homes. She is also a volunteer for Asikhulumeni, an NPO which promotes conversations about Gender-Based Violence.

Words: Lihle Sosibo

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Optometrist Receives MBChB Cum Laude

Optometrist Receives MBChB <em>Cum Laude</em>
Top Achiever in Internal Medicine, Dr Siobahn Singh.

‘I feel humbled and grateful for having completed this degree and to have excelled in it. It is rewarding to see one’s hard work and dedication pay off. I intend to grow my knowledge base in my field and use it to give back to my community. There is always room to improve oneself and the lives of others,’ said Dr Siobahn Singh on obtaining a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (MBChB) cum laude and being named Top Achiever in Internal Medicine.

Singh is a qualified Optometrist who practiced whilst completing her medical degree. She said she has always enjoyed optometry but had the desire to pursue Medicine. Her background in health sciences was an advantage. She believes that one should seek to make a positive contribution to the world and improve people’s lives.

Singh remarked that being a mature student and balancing her studies, part-time work, as well as family and personal responsibilities for six years was not an easy task, but through the grace of God, and unwavering support from her family, friends and fiancé, all became possible. She found common ground and a soul to share her life with in her soon-to-be-husband, Akhil Narain, an Internal Medicine medical officer.

‘Studying at UKZN over the span of a decade has been an ever changing and unique experience. I had both good and difficult times. As a final-year student, waiting to complete one’s degree in the midst of a pandemic was indeed a challenge but we overcame and these challenges shaped me into a more problem solving and proactive person in my approach to work and studies.’

In her free time, 29-year-old Singh enjoys running, playing tennis and baking. She describes herself as a spiritual person who always invests in her relationship with God.

Words: Lihle Sosibo

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Top Anatomy Student

Top Anatomy Student
Best Overall Student in Human Anatomy, Ms Courtney Barnes.

Ms Courtney Barnes received a Bachelor of Medical Sciences (Anatomy) degree cum laude and was named Best Overall Student in Human Anatomy in the School of Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences.

She received four certificates of merit during the course of her studies.

‘I’m proud of this accomplishment, considering the challenges I faced. My hard work and dedication have definitely paid off and will keep paying off in the future,’ she said.

Durban-born Barnes said she has always been fascinated by the study of the human body. She is currently studying towards her honours degree in Human Anatomy.

She recalled writing her first Biology test at university and thinking she had done well. She was devastated to receive a mark of 47% because she had devoted much time and effort to studying for the test.

‘This was my first assessment at university level and I had not fully adjusted to the assessment methods. Students need to understand that the transition from high school to university is not easy. If you didn’t do as well as you expected in your first assessments, you need to see that as a stepping stone to achieve your goals. I had to change my study methods until I found one that worked for me.’

A further challenge was the loss of regular interaction with her lecturers due to COVID-19. However, she drew strength from her passion for anatomy and ongoing support from her parents. 

‘My family is everything to me. They have been my safety net from day one and always will be.’

Words: Lihle Sosibo

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Medical Student Graduates Summa Cum Laude

Medical Student Graduates <em>Summa Cum Laude</em>
Dr Kellicia Govender.

Dr Kellicia Govender was named the top student in the Integrated Surgical Practice module and graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB) summa cum laude.

‘My goal has always been to be the best doctor I can be. Graduating summa cum laude is the culmination of hard work and dedication throughout my school and undergraduate journey. Obtaining the highest marks in surgery was a pleasant surprise; it’s a testament to the Department’s excellent teaching programme,’ she said.Govender added that medicine is a dynamic field and it is rewarding to translate knowledge into practice and have a positive effect on someone’s life.

The 26-year-old Durbanite is currently completing her medical internship at King Edward VIII Hospital and hopes to specialise in paediatrics or internal medicine.

‘I have fond memories of my academic and personal experiences at UKZN. We were fortunate to learn from knowledgeable and experienced clinicians over the years. The programme has prepared us to enter the healthcare system as well-rounded doctors. I am also grateful for the friendships and memories created over the past six years and for the support of my family and friends.’

Words: Lihle Sosibo

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Top Honours Student in Physiology

Top Honours Student in Physiology
Overall achiever and honours graduate, Ms Karishma Naidoo.

Miss Karishma Naidoo was named overall Best B Med Science Honours Student and best overall achiever in B Med Science Honours Physiology at the College of Health Sciences’ annual awards.

Her honours project investigated the effects of prediabetes on calcium homeostasis in male Sprague Dawley rats. It was supervised by Dr Andile Khathi and co-supervised by Dr Phikelelani Ngubane. According to Naidoo, few studies have focused on the prediabetic state despite the fact that many of the complications associated with Type 2 diabetes mellitus begin in this state. Determining the early markers of the complications associated with Type 2 diabetes could potentially prevent diabetes and the complications associated with it,’ she said.

Naidoo is currently registered for a master’s within UKZN’s Discipline of Human Physiology. She obtained her Bachelor of Medical Science: Physiology summa cum laude and was the overall best third-year student.

‘Academics has always been important to me. Seeing my younger sister Derushka, who is in her first-year of medicine excel in her studies has motivated me to work equally hard and fulfil my purpose to be the best version of myself.’

She thanked her parents, Don and Sharmaine for always supporting her and understanding her choices. In her spare time, she enjoys singing pop music, dancing and gardening.

Words: Lihle Sosibo

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Master’s in Medical Sciences with Distinction

Master’s in Medical Sciences with Distinction
UKZN master’s graduate, Mr Abel Phiri.

Mr Abel Phiri graduated with a Master of Medical Science in Medical Microbiology with distinction to the delight of his supervisor, South African Research Chair in Antibiotic Resistance and One Health, Professor Sabiha Essack.

Phiri’s study was on the Molecular Epidemiology of Antibiotic Resistant Shigella spp. Implicated in Community-Acquired Acute Diarrhoea at Bwaila Hospital, Lilongwe Malawi.

Shigella is a major cause of diarrhoeal diseases, causing significant morbidity and mortality especially in low and middle income-countries. It is common in the United States with about half a million cases each year, but far more deadly in poorer countries (about 165 million cases and about a million deaths worldwide every year).

Phiri’s study involved patients presenting with acute diarrhoea at Bwaila Hospital. A total of 243 patients were recruited. Antibiotic Resistance (ABR) was high for ampicillin (100%) and sulfamethoxazole/trimethoprim (100%) used empirically in Malawi. All isolates were susceptible to the other antibiotics tested.

Phiri commented: ‘This study highlights the prevalence of Shigella flexneri of high clonal diversity, carrying several virulence genes and exhibiting substantive resistance to first line antibiotics within this geographical region. There is a need for continuous molecular surveillance studies to inform the management of shigellosis.’

Zambian-born Phiri who is Malawian by descent, completed his schooling in Malawi and enrolled for his first post-school qualification at a tertiary college where he graduated with a Diploma in Biomedical Sciences. He was employed by the Malawian government at Public Health Laboratories where he worked for six years. Thereafter, he was awarded a scholarship to pursue Bacteriology and Haematology at Juntendo University Teaching hospital in Japan. Phiri also completed a number of courses both locally and internationally related to Microbiology.

Phiri said: ‘Some eight years ago, I decided to upgrade and enrolled for a Bachelor Degree of Arts in Health Systems Management at a private university which was a self-sponsored initiative. When the Norwegian Programme for Capacity Development in Higher Education and Research for Development (NORHED) project was co-opted by the Malawian Ministry of Health and College of Medicine (University of Malawi) through a partnership with UKZN, I was fortunate to form part of the first cohort that was admitted to pursue a degree of Master of Science in Medical Microbiology at UKZN.’ Phiri is currently employed in the National Microbiology Reference Laboratory in Malawi.

‘I would like to thank Professors Essack, Arnfin, Gunnar, Mkakosya and Drs Luther King Abia and Daniel Amoako for their unwavering support in helping me to achieve this accolade with flying colours. I often thought of “throwing in the towel” because of the many challenges I encountered and criticism from my supervisors. As I look back now, I realise they were grooming me to achieve excellence. To all my supervisors, kudos to you all good people. Please continue to encourage other prospective students. Thank you to God Almighty for this blessing.’

Words: MaryAnn Francis

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PhD Study Aims to Improve Human Health

PhD Study Aims to Improve Human Health
Dr Danah Alshaer.

Dr Danah Alshaer, who hails from Jordan, graduated with a PhD in Pharmaceutical Science following a study titled: Synthesis and Physiochemical Characterization of new Siderophore-inspired Peptide Chelators with l-hydrnxypridine-2-one (l,2-HOPO).

Supervised by well-known scientists in the field of peptide sciences, Professors Beatriz Garcia de la Torre and Fernando Albericio. Alshaer’s study identified new ligands that are derived from peptides and can strongly bind to iron (III). These are expected to be beneficial as antibacterial agents.

‘Multi drug resistant bacteria is an increasing threat to human health,’ said Alshaer.

‘Compounds that chelate iron (III) can assist in overcoming this resistance by depriving the microbes from its nutrient, iron (III), or by smuggling the antibiotic into the cell in a Trojan horse disguise. These kinds of studies thus have promising potential to improve human health.’

She added that the PhD experience was like opening a door to the world of science. ‘I am looking for a chance to go much deeper into the field of developing, preparation and testing antibacterial agents and I am optimistic about the future.’

Alshaer’s future plans include getting into chemical biology, the interdisciplinary space between chemistry and biology.

She is married to her former lab mate and they have three small children. ‘My husband was a student and a lab mate in the same research group, which gave me strong determination to pursue my study in the scientific field I have been always passionate about, Chemistry.’

Words: Nombuso Dlamini

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Farm-to-Fork Approach Yields Three Master’s Graduates

Farm-to-Fork Approach Yields Three Master’s Graduates
Graduating with master’s degrees for studies on antibiotic resistance are from left: Ms Viwe Sithole, Ms Ncomeka Sineke and Ms Sasha Badul.

Ms Viwe Sithole (Medical Microbiology), Ms Ncomeka Sineke (Medical Microbiology) and Ms Sasha Badul (Pharmacology), from UKZN’s Antimicrobial Research Unit graduated with Master’s degrees in Medical Sciences for their work on antimicrobial resistance using the farm-to-fork approach.

The graduates were supervised by the South African Research Chair in Antibiotic Resistance and One Health, Professor Sabiha Essack, an internationally renowned pharmaceutical scientist in antimicrobial resistance and Dr Daniel Gyamfi Amoako, a Senior Research Scientist at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases. Their studies were funded by the World Health Organization (WHO).

‘The graduates worked on antibiotic resistance (ABR) on different bacterial species in food animals, specifically intensively produced pigs as pork is the most consumed meat in South Africa after chicken,’ said Essack. ‘All of their work has been published in high impact factor journals and we are among the few research groups that have adopted the farm-to-fork methodology that traces antibiotic resistance from the farm to the final packaged meat for consumers to detect whether there is bacterial and/or antibiotic resistance transmission across the food chain.’

Said Amoako: ‘The mentoring and training of young female scientists to probe fundamental issues in society is key to the development of South Africa. The findings of the study had a direct public health impact on the pig food chain in the country and I feel proud in guiding the students to realise their dreams.’

Sithole’s study looked at the Occurrence, Antimicrobial Resistance and Molecular Characterisation of Campylobacter spp. in Intensive pig production in South Africa. Campylobacter spp. are among the leading foodborne pathogens causing campylobacteriosis, a zoonotic infection that results in bacterial gastroenteritis and diarrheal disease in animals and humans. She collected samples over 16 weeks from selected critical points (farm, transport, abattoir, and retail) using a farm-to-fork sampling approach. Alarmingly, Sithole’s study found a high prevalence of multidrug-resistant Campylobacter spp., with some evidence of transmission across the farm-to-fork continuum, thereby presenting a potential risk to human health.

Sithole commented: ‘This calls for enhanced antibiotic stewardship, comprehensive biosecurity, and good animal husbandry in intensive pig production together with the implementation of routine surveillance, preferably at a genomic level.’

Sithole was raised in Vuli Valley in the small town of Butterworth, Eastern Cape. She thanked her mother, Ms Zandile Sithole and her twin brother, Mr Vuyisa Sithole for supporting and encouraging her throughout her master’s studies. ‘Science was my second choice from all other fields of study and I'm glad that I was accepted in this field at UKZN where I excelled. I am fascinated with conducting research and plan to become a professional scientist, thereby contributing to South African research.’

Badul, who received her master’s with distinction, examined the Molecular Epidemiology of Antibiotic-Resistant Enterococcus Spp. from Farm-To-Fork in Intensive Pig Production in Kwazulu-Natal. Her specific study area was pig production in the uMgungundlovu District in KZN. Badul’s study found multi-drug resistant Enterococcus spp. The diversity of ABR and virulence genes in different combinations form reservoirs for potential transfer of these genes from pigs to occupationally exposed workers and consumers via direct contact with animals and animal products/food, respectively. Badul commented on her concerning findings: ‘The results highlight the need for more robust guidelines for antibiotic use in intensive farming practices and the necessity of including Enterococcus spp. as an indicator in antibiotic resistance surveillance systems in food animals.’

Badul is a qualified pharmacist who graduated with a Bachelor of Pharmarcy degree cum laude from UKZN. She has worked in a private hospital as a clinical pharmacist. ‘While I may have initially thought of antibiotic resistance as a far-out concept, I have seen the direct consequences of antibiotic resistance which leads to an increase in mortality rates, prolonged treatment duration, and increased costs. The reality of the situation is exacerbated by the lack of new antibiotics, and the lack of integrated surveillance systems and strategies to effectively contain antimicrobial resistance. This experience led me on the path to pursue a master’s degree in Pharmacy looking at antibiotic resistance from a One Health perspective. I have always wanted to further my studies to gain knowledge and experience and this afforded me the opportunity to contribute to a field I am passionate about,’ she said.

Sineke who grew up in the rural Eastern Cape town of Zizamele in Butterworth, also received her master’s degree with distinction, for her study titled: Staphylococcus aureus in Intensive Pig Production in South Africa: Antibiotic Resistance, Virulence Determinants and Clonality. Her study is fairly rare as it focused on the molecular characterisation of Staphylococcus aureus in intensive animal food production. Staphylococcus aureus is a major threat to the veterinary, agricultural, and public health sectors because of its zoonotic potential. Moreover, its ability to resist a wide range of antibiotics has led to limited therapeutic options for treating its infections. The study confirmed that pigs serve as important reservoirs for Multi-drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, including Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, with significant zoonotic implications and transmission potential to humans through occupational exposure. Resistance to a range of antibiotics poses a challenge to food safety and human and veterinary medicine, necessitating proper surveillance, stewardship, and biosecurity programmes in intensive food animal production.

‘Antibiotic overuse is the primary driving force of resistance in pig production. Antibiotics are used as growth promoters for metaphylaxis and prophylaxis to improve health, produce high-quality products, and increase overall production yield. In 2016, it was estimated that South Africa consumes 200 000 tons of pork, making it the second most consumed meat after chicken. Due to high demand, different antibiotics are used extensively during food animal production, resulting in multidrug-resistant pathogenic strains,’ said Sineke.

Words: MaryAnn Francis

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