Washington State University doctoral researcher Sylvia Omulo said most people seem to think antibiotic resistance is someone else's problem.

It is, however, a global issue.

Whether in a U.S. hospital or a faraway community in Africa, "it is an urgent problem," she said.

Omulo, who was born in Narobi, the capital city of Kenya, has been working toward her doctorate at WSU since autumn of 2013, two years after she made connections with researchers in the Paul G. Allen School of Global Animal Health in her home country.

After dozens of meetings with a doctoral advisory committee during her first year in Pullman she narrowed down her goals. They were all working toward driving change in Africa.

The past three and a half years have seen her make great strides in doing just that, working at determining the cause of antibiotic resistance.

Overuse of antibiotics tend to be the go-to cause of resistant bugs such as E. coli and salmonella bacteria that can no longer be controlled with traditional antibiotics, but not a lot of effort has thus far been expended to examine other possible causes.

That is where Omulo's work comes in.

"We have very limited data of what factors contribute to antibiotic resistance," she said. "We need to know the causes."

Omulo said there is certainly a correlation between antibiotic resistance and overuse of antibiotics in Africa, where such drugs can be inexpensively procured without a prescription at any drugstore, but that is not the only factor.

"Sanitation is an important factor," she said.

The most dangerous environments for antibiotic resistance are in what Omulo called "low settlements," or slums, where people live in extremely close proximity to one another.

"Your neighbors are breathing on you," she said.

This is not such a hyperbole.

Omulo said such communities have as many as 70,000 people living in a single square kilometer.

"That's over seven times the density of New York City," where the highest densities are 10,000 people per square kilometer, she said.

As part of her doctoral research, Omulo traveled to Kenya in 2015 to spend a year collecting stool samples, water samples, hand swabs and interview data from the people who live in these environments. She found unsanitary conditions contributed to the presence of antibiotic resistant strains of E. coli, even when antibiotics were not being used.

While Omulo's dissertation research has identified another cause of antibiotic resistant bacteria, addressing the issue is another matter entirely - and one she said she feels prepared to navigate in the coming years as a post doctoral research fellow for the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health.

Shanon Quinn can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to squinn@dnews.com.

Recommended for you