Researchers at Swiss TPH have launched a new project focused on rabies control in Chad with the help of artificial intelligence. Read more about how the research project takes a transdisciplinary One Health approach and uses public engagement and multilingual communication to achieve results.
Dog mediated rabies, although entirely preventable, kills every year over 25,000 people in Africa. It has been demonstrated that rabies transmission can be interrupted with successful dog mass vaccination in N’Djamena, the capital city of Chad. However, most of the strategies to control and eliminate human rabies still stagnate mainly due to a lack of resources to support such interventions. One way that we can tackle rabies in Africa is by introducing relatively new, low-cost interventions, which is what our research project on Rabies Control in Chad aims to address.
Our project focuses on three main objectives: 1) We aim to understand the role of (human-mediated) dog importation on the transmission dynamics of rabies by creating a ring of permanently staffed vaccination posts around N’Djaména, Chad, 2) We attempt to identify rabies transmission reservoirs in urban areas with high dog densities, and 3) We assess the effect of dog movement restriction on occurrence of rabies outbreaks in a rural context.
In the field of One Health, our project is one of the few transdisciplinary projects that examines collaboration in different areas on a meta-level - with a focus on communication and epistemology, which is relevant to research ethics.
Participatory public engagement
Our project has an important societal dimension, which cannot solely be addressed by academic research, so a transdisciplinary process of co-production of transformational knowledge with communities, dog-holders, municipal authorities, security forces, veterinarians and public health is essential for the success of the project. Only this way, the best locations of vaccination posts, the best forms of communication on the project objectives and the locally adapted implementation of the field activities of the project can work out.
The basis for the cooperation between the scientists and stakeholders is successful communication - both within and outside the project. This requires a communication concept with a concrete strategy for internal communication (iterative communication process between all project partners), and external communication (e.g. continuous exchange with the stakeholders, dissemination activities).
Shared knowledge acquisition and transfer requires shared concepts and reflected project communication – between scientists, dog-holders, municipal authorities, security forces, veterinarians and public health experts. Taking this in, successful internal project communication gains trust, education and attention, scientific and non-scientific knowledge, scientific reputation, and the enhancement of the local situation.
The project communication (established as a management task) will further ensure the implementation of research fairness. For ensuring this, internal strategies for dealing with inequalities regarding hierarchies, cultures, language(s), etc. will be developed and implemented, These issues are often neglected in research collaboration and have hardly been explored specifically for transdisciplinary collaboration in One Health.
Artificial intelligence (with the contribution from project partners at ETH Zurich) has the potential to reduce rabies in Chad and make future vaccination campaigns even more successful. The dogs transported into N’Djamena will be vaccinated against rabies (after informed consent of the owner) and a lateral photograph will be taken of each dog in order to identify them through machine learning algorithms and recognized at a later stage. To identify rabies reservoirs that sustain transmission, the origin of each dog entering N’Djaména will be recorded.
In the most important places of origin (>80% of imports), active surveillance of rabies will be initiated to collect as many rabies strains as possible for analysis. In a transdisciplinary project process, the approaches involved must be presented and explained to all project participants. We did this by giving a presentation on AI at the first project workshop in Chad. We were able to convey AI in an understandable way for non-scientific stakeholders in Chad, which was extremely exciting for our research on communication and epistemology.
Multilingual communication methods for One Health
Since values and concepts manifest themselves in language, multi-epistemic approaches always result in multilingual communication. In linguistics, we assume inter- and intralingual multilingualism: Interlingual multilingualism between individual languages (e.g. English, French) and intralingual multilingualism within an individual language (e.g. technical language, dialect). The approach of AI thus had to be translated intralingually to such a simple level that they were understood and accepted by all participants (inside and outside Academia).
Intralingual multilingualism includes the technical languages of all the disciplines involved and also of the practical domains. In transdisciplinary projects, we have expertise outside of scientific domains and thus linguistically manifested degrees of expertise - this often leads to discussions about hierarchies and leadership.
Although the desire for a common language arises quickly in transdisciplinary projects, it is not the best way per se as it can lead to inefficient communication and issues in terms of research ethics. Translations are often difficult in this form of collaboration as well, as multi-epistemic concepts must be transferred between the languages.
Knowledge is not only transferred through communication, it can also be acquired through the writing process - in so-called epistemic writing. This happens in different phases of a project, for example during data analysis and interpretations. In epistemic writing in a foreign language, the highest level of epistemic writing is not reached as the knowledge acquisition while writing in a foreign language is limited. As less knowledge is thus acquired, all non-native speakers are disadvantaged in their knowledge acquisition.
The research of this project benefits from the research of previous projects on strategic communication. We specifically built up internal communication first and initiated the transdisciplinary process with all stakeholders – with focus on intralingual multilingualism. Epistemicide through faulty communication creates ethical difficulties and, not least, leads to not fully exploiting the knowledge to be acquired and transferred in the project. From the beginning, great importance was attached to ethical communication in order to avoid discussions about hierarchies and epistemic issues.
Summary and outlook
Rabies control through a One Health approach supported by artificial intelligence is a very exciting topic itself, but complex epistemiological and linguistic issues in this research collaborations must be considered. Theoretically well grounded, the One Health approach presents us with many fascinating and essential questions to addressing major global health challenges such as rabies.
In order to establish an equitable One Health cooperation to solve major societal problems such as social inequality, environmental protection, climate change mitigation, biodiversity conservation and conflict transformation, transdisciplinary participatory public engagement processes must be implemented, in addition to considering the ethically relevant forms of multilingualism in strategic communication.