One shot to save millions of lives

“Before you go travelling next time, make sure you come to me for some tips.”

Associate Professor Naresh Verma isn’t talking about the best tourist sights.

He’s talking about how to avoid becoming one of the hundreds of thousands of tourists every year who contract shigellosis, or bacillary dysentery, from their travels in developing countries.

But Associate Professor Verma’s tips—frequent handwashing, avoiding raw vegetables, drinking treated or boiled water, eating only food you see being cooked—can only help so much, especially for people living there.

“Infections like this are not common in developed countries because we have better hygiene, water quality and sanitation, but in places, mainly in Asia and Africa, these things are not the priority,” Associate Professor Verma explains.

“Over half a million kids die of shigellosis every year. So the idea is to develop a vaccine to protect these kids against the disease.”

It’s an idea that Associate Professor Verma has been working on at the ANU Research School of Biology for over 20 years.

“We’re looking at the pathogenesis of the Shigella bacteria, how it causes the infection, and utilising that knowledge to develop a vaccine.

“You have many different serotypes of Shigella, just like you have many types and subtypes of viruses and flu, so if a person gets shigellosis by one type of strain, they get immune to that particular serotype, but the person can get infected by other serotypes.

“What we have discovered is the genetic basis of the serotype variation.

“Now we know that, it’s basically opened future avenues for research into development of a vaccine against multiple serotypes.”

Postgraduate students from around the world have come to work in Associate Professor Verma’s lab, and so can students from the Master of Biological Sciences (Advanced).

Everyone in the lab is conducting research that “ultimately leads into the vaccine design and development,” he says.

And you could be the student there when a breakthrough occurs.

“Hopefully there will be a successful vaccine not too far in the future.

“I would love to see that happen.”

Until then, stay away from the raw vegetables.