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Suddenly I was in Africa… My new home for the next few months is in Ngaoundere, Cameroon. In this town in the mountainous inner region of Cameroon is a small field station of the Onchocercoses Project with a network of collaboration partners in Germany and Cameroon. Since the project has just started, all the equipment and material had to be brought in our luggage from Germany (Fig.1). It actually took me nearly a week to order all chemicals and arrange everything in the bags that each did not weigh more than 23 kg. Even two microscopes were included in the luggage.
When we and all of our bags have finally arrived in Douala, my supervisor Alfons Renz and I made a short trip to explore the ocean side. A few years ago the Mount Cameroon volcano erupted and after 16 km its lava stopped a few 100 m before the shore (Fig.2). It did not cool off for more than 2 years, but finally new grass is growing on its top. Alfons has already worked in Cameroon for 33 years now. During this time he became an expert in onchocercoses, and it was his work that the two drugs Ivermectin and Docycyclin are now efficiently used for human and animal treatment. The logo on the first page shows the black fly, which transmits the parasites to humans and cattle. Our focus lies on cattle, and the project includes the establishment of an own cattle herd with young animals that get infected at an early age and are monitored for multiple years. In addition, we want to keep adult male and female worms in culture and investigate their excretory and secretory products. This remains still a more difficult task as previously expected…
Alfons has already worked in Cameroon for 33 years now. During this time he became an expert in onchocercoses, and it was his work that the two drugs Ivermectin and Docycyclin are now efficiently used for human and animal treatment. The logo on the first page shows the black fly, which transmits the parasites to humans and cattle. Our focus lies on cattle, and the project includes the establishment of an own cattle herd with young animals that get infected at an early age and are monitored for multiple years. In addition, we want to keep adult male and female worms in culture and investigate their excretory and secretory products. This remains still a more difficult task as previously expected…
The laboratory building (Fig.3) is located in the same compound as the main house, the storage houses, the house of the nightwatch and the gardener’s house. Everything here needs to be cleaned because it has not been used for a long time. A new in-vitro lab is also unter construction and will hopefully(!) be finished this week (Fig.6). The next task was to organize the ‘chemical storage’. All chemicals were placed in an undefinable arrangement on a shelf. They are an antique collection of previous researchers that have come to Cameroon for several months, and I still find some misplaced chemicals every once in a while in various places distributed all over in three lab rooms. Micropur water tablets were next to the yeast extract, and all pipette tips were stored in big cans that were previously used for milk powder. It took me several days to sort all chemicals, arrange and list them. The fridge in the lab looks so old, that I was surprised that they even had power already at the time it must have been built – and when Alfons had not told me that this is a fridge, I would have stood there without having any clue about its purpose… Meanwhile, I also discovered antique methods of laboratory working. This precise scale in Fig.5 is my favourite J It takes some time to get the scale into the proper balance, but it is definitely the most charming scale I have ever seen. Today I tried to work under ‘sterile’ contitions and flamed the forceps with Ethanol and a gas burner, when suddely the gas was finished. So what could I do? There was not even a lighter in the whole household… Alors; everytime I needed to sterilize the forceps I dumped it into Ethanol and lit up a match stick… Tomorrow I am going to find out whether it was possible to kill contaminous bacteria with a set of matches!
Every morning, five days a week, Jérémie goes to the slaughter house and collects skin samples from Onchocerca ochengi-infected cattle. When he returns to tha lab, he isolates the nodules and hands them over to us researchers. This is me how I sit in the lab and dissect nodules (Fig.7). In the beginning it was quite tricky to distinguish between male and female heads, but after a while you just know the difference, even if it is hard to explain. Now I even have the impression that they move their heads in different ways so that I look at the worm; and it looks back at me and says, “hey, I am a male/female”. It takes quite some time to wash the females properly after the collagenase digestion of the surrounding tissue. The tissue of the nodules is quite tough and it takes more than a day until it is halfway digested. Unfortunately, most of my females were dead afterwards as was the case in Fig.8B. When you take a close look you will see a black line that runs along the worm. This black line is typical for worms that have died during the in vitro cultivation. Fig.8C shows a close-up picture of a male head. Its interior organs are clearly visible. A very nice image of the insect vector for the Onchocerca parasites, the black fly Simulium damnosum, was taken by Alfons (Fig.9). Its larvae develop only in the current of fast flowing water, so the insects are mainly found along rivers and streams. It depends on the economic structure of a village whether the cattle grases along the river and they get bitten by the black flies, or whether the people live closer to the river than the cattle. In the latter case, river blindness is more likely to appear among the inhabitants.
When you come to Cameroon, you will discover that all people are very friendly and welcome you in their country. I am very interested in the social life of the Cameroonians nowadays. There are the big bosses that only harvest money in their own pockets. And there are others that dream to go to Europe or the US one day to have an easier life. The ones that do not have enough money to go somewhere abroad dream of having an own digital camera to save the memories of their family events. Cameroon was separated into two parts, the one boarding Nigeria was run by the British and the first language the children learn at school is English. The other part was run by the French, and therefore the people speak French as first language. I live in the French part, and I am trying to improve my French. Most people in the lab also speak English, so I do not have any problems to communicate with them. And the others that do not speak English are so friendly that they understand when I explain to them what to do in my crappy French and with paper and pen to make drawings to backup. The little family on the picture to the left (Fig.11) is the younger sister of the lab assistant Jérémie with her baby. The people here love children, and even when they are not married they have several children. About fifty percent of the population are christian and about fifty percent are muslims, so the love among two people of the different religions would result in a baby, but the parents would not be able to marry. ‘Ngaoundere’ means ‘belly button mountain’ in the native language. When the first people settled here, they saw a mountain with stones on its top that looked like a belly button. When you climb up there you will have a great view over the town.
To be continued!!!
Sarah Reiling, Oct. 2009