Meet Chris Kilonzo, HALI's New Blogger & Post-doc

Christopher Kilonzo is a veterinarian and epidemiologist who was born and raised in Kenya. He is now a postdoc working on the HALI project in Tanzania who will be sharing photos and stories on this blog. We’re excited to have him on board and we look forward to seeing what he shares!

As an introduction, we asked him a few questions about his new position with HALI and what excites him most. But first, a bit more about his background:

Chris attended primary and high school in Nairobi before joining the University of Nairobi to pursue a degree in veterinary medicine. His interest in public health and zoonoses (diseases transmissible from animals to humans) led him to join UC Davis for a graduate degree in Preventive veterinary medicine.

Chris graduated with the MPVM (Masters in Preventive Veterinary Medicine) in 2010, where his research focused on the epidemiology of E. coli O157:H7 in sheep populations in California. Shortly thereafter, he worked on several food safety research projects as a junior research specialist with the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security (WIFSS). Chris joined the Graduate Group in Epidemiology in 2011 and recently completed his PhD in Epidemiology focusing on zoonotic foodborne pathogens in wild rodents in California agricultural farms. Chris is married to Victoria, who is also a veterinarian.

1. What life experience had the biggest impact on your decision to do the work you’ll be doing with HALI? 

Witnessing the disease burden and devastation associated with zoonoses, particularly in African countries such as Kenya where I grew up. It has by far had the largest influence on my career path and decision to work with HALI. I am excited about joining the team and I believe a One Health approach is fundamental to zoonotic disease research, particularly in African societies where domestic and wild animals are often found in close proximity to humans.

2. What excites you most about moving to Tanzania to work with HALI? 

I am excited about the opportunity to meet and interact with the HALI team and the new One Health research projects we plan on undertaking. I am also excited about exploring the country and experiencing new cultures and cuisines.

3. Tell us a story about your work as a field veterinarian.

Working as a field veterinarian in Kenya requires a lot of tenacity and patience. In veterinary school, we had to do a lot of hands-on clinical training particularly dealing with livestock and companion animals. After vet school I thought I had gathered enough experience to bravely go out into the world and practice. The situation out in the field is typically very different as I came to realize. Many rural small-scale farmers are illiterate, poor and struggle to afford veterinary care for their animals. It is a challenge explaining to them the importance and benefits of a certain procedure or therapy and often times a veterinarian has to make due with the little that a farmer can afford for veterinary services. My first case fresh out of veterinary school was a cow with a retained afterbirth or placenta. This condition occurs when the placental tissues fail to detach from the uterine wall. If the afterbirth isn’t expelled soon after birth, uterine infection and illness could occur. The cow in this case had a history of a difficult calving and was therefore unable to naturally expel the afterbirth.

Because several days had passed since the calving, the afterbirth had begun to decompose and the cow was severely infected as evidenced by fever. I had to manually remove the afterbirth and brave through the smell, knowing well that the cow’s life hung in the balance. Fortunately, after a dose of antibiotics, the cow later fully recovered and went about its normal routine of chewing curd and suckling its newborn calf. Unfortunately for me, I had to endure the foul smell, which lingered all the way home, but such is the life of a veterinarian.

4. You were born in Nairobi and frequently visited and spent time in rural Kenya. What was it like, and have things changed for rural families in Kenya since you were a child?

I grew up in Nairobi, which is an urban city, and spent many holidays and weekends in rural Kenya visiting my grandparents and extended family. As a child we looked forward to these visits, as we were free to explore the terrain and play with our cousins and friends sometimes until very late in the day, something we couldn’t do in Nairobi due to insecurity.

Things have definitely changed for rural families over the years. There has been a lot of rural-to-urban migration and a lot of the people I used to interact with have moved to urban areas in search of employment. There have been improvements in infrastructure and road networks are better, making movement and transportation much easier.

Electric power has been directed to the various homesteads through government-backed rural electrification programs facilitating the use of electrical appliances and equipment. With improved infrastructure and amenities, many people in rural areas have been able to dig boreholes and pump water directly into storage tanks eliminating the need to walk long distances to laboriously fetch water from rivers and lakes. I have also seen an increase in zero grazing systems of animal production where livestock are confined and fed rather than let out to graze. Such systems have helped to maximize land use and have contributed to a reduction in the spread of livestock diseases.

There has also been an increase in use of cellphones as cellphone coverage has rapidly spread throughout the country. Today I can easily talk to my grandmother in village no matter where I am in the world, something that was impossible growing up. Improved telecommunication has also had positive effects for the animal industry in Kenya as farmers can now easily call their veterinarian in case they need urgent veterinary assistance for their animals.

Ruth Maganga introducing Chris and the team to the viral molecular diagnostics lab.

Ruth Maganga introducing Chris and the team to the viral molecular diagnostics lab.

5. You are a veterinarian and have just finished your PhD work, which represents a long road of training and research experiences. What life skills or stories do you think of as keys to your success?

I believe that developing a passion for veterinary medicine and research, setting goals for success early in my career and working hard to see them to fruition have all been important keys to my success. Additionally, seeking and identifying mentors who have guided me through my training and research has played a big role in my achievements.

6. What is your perspective on the roles of veterinarians in society today, since we can now do much more than what many people thought of as a career in pet medicine or livestock health?

Veterinarians have very important roles to play in society and are not just limited to clinical practice as many people think. Over the years, veterinarians have made significant contributions to multiple disciplines including public health, food safety and security, animal welfare, environmental protection and conservation, policy development and biomedical research.

For example, majority of emerging infectious diseases today are zoonotic and veterinarians together with physicians and other health professionals are playing critical roles to improve public health by actively preventing disease outbreaks and educating the public on preventative measures. As a result, One Health multidisciplinary approaches to tackling diseases have gained popularity as people acknowledge the mutual benefits of such efforts

Veterinarians are progressively getting involved in food security issues as the demand for safe, fresh food products increases as a result of a concomitant increase in human populations. Similarly, veterinarians are playing important roles in enhancing food safety, as we recognize the potential threats of agro-terrorism and inadvertent cross-border introduction of animal pathogens.

Veterinarians are also actively involved in educating the public about animal welfare issues and the societal benefits of good animal husbandry practices. Veterinarians are also making  key contributions to biomedical research and the development of new therapies and drugs.

Questions by Justin Cox, Woutrina Smith, and David Wolking