There are many ways infections spread in hospitals. They can spread between patients, and through the contamination of hospital surfaces. In countries with tropical climates, insect pests such as flies, cockroaches and ants can also spread bacteria as they move between hospital, agricultural and natural environments.  

Kate Cook is a DPhil student at the IOI, investigating the causes of wound infections in Murtala Muhammad Specialist Hospital in Kano, Nigeria. One aim of Kate’s project is to understand the role of insects in spreading bacteria that cause wound infections in surgical and orthopaedic wards.  

Kate is a microbiological detective. She first identifies which kinds of bacteria are causing infections in patients, then investigates whether these bacteria are also present on hospital surfaces, and in insects caught on the wards. She works closely with two research assistants in the hospital - Maryam and Firdausi. 

Kate, Maryam and Firdausi working in the lab in Kano, Nigeria

Kate, Maryam and Firdausi in the lab at Murtala Muhammad Specialist Hospital in Kano, Nigeria.

To do this, she uses selective culture and DNA sequencing techniques. Selective culture involves growing samples on petri dishes that only allow certain bacterial species to grow. This combined with comparing DNA sequences of bacteria from the different sample types gives Kate an understanding of whether insects are involved in a network of bacterial transmission in hospital wards.   

Kate’s background is in Biology and towards the end of her undergraduate degree, she developed an interest in the role of insects in transmitting infectious parasites. Her Masters project, which focused on trypanosomiasis (‘sleeping sickness’), fostered this interest and gave her an insight into the burden of tropical disease. During the pandemic, she worked on the whole genome sequencing (WGS) of SARS‑CoV‑2. Her first paper used this data to analyse transmission networks in a UK hospital, which inspired her current research approach. 

Now Kate investigates how bacterial networks may exist in the hospital environment, and the role of insects in contributing to these.

Designing creative experiments is the best part of my work. It can be challenging when there are huge numbers of samples to analyse, and trying to figure out how the bacterial transmission networks fit together, but the project is very rewarding. The opportunity to work with the team in Kano, who are equally as passionate about the project and who play an essential role in the initial steps of patient enrolment, sample collection and processing, has been amazing.

Kate cook preparing petri dishes in the lab in Kano, nigeria
Kate Cook, IOI DPhil student

Kate’s research can provide essential evidence for policy makers and stakeholders in low and middle-income countries to highlight the need to address insect infestation as part of infection prevention and control policies. Insect pests are abundant in many hospitals around the world, and research like Kate’s is essential to raise awareness of the role of these in spreading infections, and antimicrobial resistance.

Kate and the AVIAR team would like to thank the Nigerian country lead Dr Kenneth Iregbu, and the Kano site lead Dr Aminu Aliyu, for facilitating work conducted at Murtala Muhammad Specialist Hospital.