A centenary of Robert T. Leiper’s lasting legacy on schistosomiasis and a COUNTDOWN on control of neglected tropical diseases

The latest Parasitology Paper of the Month is “A centenary of Robert T. Leiper’s lasting legacy on schistosomiasis and a COUNTDOWN on control of neglected tropical diseases” by J. Russell Stothard, Narcis B. Kabatereine, John Archer, Hajri Al-Shehri, Louis Albert Tchuem-Tchuenté, Margaret Gyapong and Amaya L. Bustinduy. This blog post was written for us by Professor Stothard.

Typically, biomedical research and disease control in general is forward looking in focus. This is often typified in the aspirational goals and targets set by international health agencies, as bundled within progress-specific indicators. In 2012, for example, the WHO formulated the Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) Roadmap which helped to set out future progress to sustain the drive to overcome the global impact of NTDs by 2020. With later formulation of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), this NTD agenda has been expanded but now framed in a 2030 perspective.

While looking to the future, we should not forget to occasionally glance back at the past; for it is here where we review and contextualise previous successes and failures. Indeed, progress is rarely smooth and is often a stuttered march through time. Just over a hundred years ago, the then state-of-the-art biomedical research culminated in clarification of the lifecycle of the African schistosome. With it, precious knowledge was brought forth to the world, opening up a new vista on schistosomiasis, a terrifying waterborne illness, and signposting a cardinal era in future disease control. In some small celebration of this achievement, I thought it time to reflect upon this, placing its significance in today’s world.

I previously had some understanding of the stature that Robert T. Leiper had in parasitology when I was based at the Natural History Museum (NHM) and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). Although Leiper died the year before I was born, many times did I look at his portrait in oils hanging in the LSHTM’s main stairwell. His face often brought to life by an anecdote retold to me, often either tart or sweet in equal measure, when visiting a senior colleague on the 4th floor who had had first-hand dealings with him.

Upon more detailed investigations into his life, while searching the LSHTM and NHM archives, I was privileged to read his meticulous hand written notes. Moreover, viewing his black and white photographs transported me to China and Egypt of old and delving deeper, I became beset within the melancholies of Antarctic exploration and First World War tragedy. Without doubt, I strongly sensed Leiper’s fiery energy and dogged determination which enabled him to go the extra mile where others would not, and help him solidify the importance of fundamental parasitological research within tropical medicine.

During this exercise, I remembered that control of schistosomiasis in theory is relatively easy; it can be curtailed by very simple water hygiene measures that Leiper himself pioneered. Sadly, putting this into practice is still out of reach for millions in sub-Saharan Africa and in Uganda intestinal schistosomiasis is still rife within lakeshore communities where Leiper once worked. As Director of COUNTDOWN, an implementation research consortium funded by DFID, UK, I hope this article reminds us that ‘old’ advice still needs appropriate tailoring within the control practices of today, and to embellish the aspiration that everyone, child or adult, has the daily right to safe water.

Read the review paper “A centenary of Robert T. Leiper’s lasting legacy on schistosomiasis and a COUNTDOWN on control of neglected tropical diseases” which has been published Open Access here.

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