Tracking rabies

Professor Wanda Markotter, UP. (Supplied)

Professor Wanda Markotter, UP. (Supplied)

Professor Wanda Markotter, associate professor at the University of Pretoria (UP), has been awarded for her contribution in understanding the epidemiology and pathogenicity of rabies-related lyssaviruses in Africa and the development of new diagnostic tools for rabies.

Her work has resulted in new knowledge of the distribution and diversity of African viruses that cause rabies.

“When my research started, limited information was available in the public domain about the incidence of African lyssaviruses associated with bat species in South Africa. Our initial aim was to detect and identify these viruses and then conduct more comprehensive characterisation and phylogenetics (the study of evolutionary relationships among groups of organisms that are discovered through molecular sequencing data and morphological data matrices),” she says.

This was followed by pathogenicity studies to investigate their possible public and veterinary health impact. 

As these objectives were achieved, Markotter said, the aims were expanded to additional studies including more representative isolates and development of new diagnostic methods to detect and study the diversity of African lyssaviruses.

“Due to my interest in bat rabies-related lyssaviruses, current research now also include other zoonotic viruses (diseases spread between animals and humans) associated with bat species in Southern Africa for which thre is limited information.”

Her research was done in collaboration with Professor Louis Nel from the department of microbiology and plant pathology at UP and Professor Janusz Paweska from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. The project initiated inter-disciplinary research involving virologists, zoologists, bat biologists, veterinarians, and medical scientists.

“We employed unique methods to study inter- and intra-viral species diversity after generating viral sequence data and expanded the knowledge on the Lagos bat virus as well as the Mokola virus diversity, even proposing a new genotype. Our research was the first inclusive study of all available Lagos bat virus (LBV)isolates investigating diversity as well as pathogenicity.”

Before the research on African bat lyssaviruses commenced, there were only twelve isolations of  LBV reported throughout Africa, the genetic diversity of this virus was unknown, and limited information on the pathogenicity was available.

LBV was believed to be less pathogenic than the classical rabies virus and therefore considered not to be a high public health risk.

“After 12 years of no reports of LBV in South Africa, we were able to make seven new isolates of LBV. This emphasises that the incidence of this virus is underestimated due to no or poor surveillance,” she says.

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