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MPVM graduate on the forefront of safeguarding public health

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Christopher Kilonzo received his MPVM from UC Davis in 2010. He is now a PhD candidate in Epidemiology.

Christopher Kilonzo grew up in the sprawling city of Nairobi, Kenya—not exactly the place where he’d have much contact with large animals. Fortunately, his dad owned a small farm in the country where Kilonzo spent many weekends and holidays among cattle, goats and dogs which fostered an early attachment to all creatures. 

Kilonzo’s love for animals led him to a DVM from the University of Nairobi in 2009. During his veterinary medicine training, Kilonzo spent two months at UC Davis as a visiting student attached to the large animal anesthesia and equine surgery units. He’d always had an interest in the public health applications of being a veterinarian and asked his Davis colleagues about various programs available. After hearing about the MPVM program from Professor Bruno Chomel, Kilonzo realized the additional training would offer him desired expertise in food safety and public health. Immediately after finishing his DVM in Kenya, Kilonzo returned to UC Davis to complete the MPVM program in 2010.

“I’m interested in the epidemiology of foodborne zoonotic pathogens in domestic and synanthropic wild animals and the risks associated with pathogen shedding,” Kilonzo said. “Foodborne disease is responsible for numerous deaths in developing countries, particularly among infants, which underscores the importance of understanding the epidemiology of these disease causing organisms in animals, especially those considered as pathogen reservoirs.”

Kilonzo’s MPVM project focused on the prevalence and molecular characterization of E. coli O157:H7 shedding in sheep. This strain of E. coli is responsible for numerous foodborne outbreaks that have resulted in illness, death and considerable economic losses. Under the mentorship of Professors Bruce Hoar and Rob Atwill, Kilonzo looked at the molecular epidemiology of that pathogen in sheep on three farms in Yolo, Mendocino and Solano counties. The sheep were raised in three different environments: on a feedlot, fed a high grain ration; on pasture with access to native grasses year-round; or on native pastures in the summer and fed alfalfa in the winter. (Read article in Journal of Food Protection here.)

His main hypothesis that the feedlot sheep would be greater E. coli O157:H7 shedders was consistent with the study results obtained following screening of fecal samples for the pathogen. The other major finding was that there is strong correlation between shedding and warmer months of the year—prime time for county fairs and petting zoos that often feature sheep. 

“By understanding the risk factors associated with fecal shedding of deleterious foodborne pathogens, we can focus on those risks and hopefully reduce the opportunities for disease transmission —whether in a fair environment or in a final meat product,” Kilonzo said.

Following his MPVM project, Kilonzo worked as a junior specialist with the Western Institute of Food Safety and Security for about a year then joined the PhD epidemiology group in the fall of 2011. His PhD project focuses on shedding of various foodborne pathogens by wild rodents in agricultural settings in the central California coast. He’s currently aiming to graduate in the fall of 2014. (Read related article in the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology.)

“Eventually I want to return to Kenya and use the skills acquired from UC Davis to help improve public health, but there’s still so much to learn here,” Kilonzo said. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with well renowned faculty and I’ve learned a lot about the epidemiology of zoonotic diseases. In addition, I’ve met students from all over the globe and have gained from their life experiences as well. It’s been very fulfilling.”

The application period for the MPVM program is now open with a deadline of Jan. 15, 2014.

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