Barefoot in Ethiopia

Museum scientists are studying Ethiopian soils to investigate the role of fine clay minerals in the disease podoconiosis.

Podoconiosis is an unusual form of elephantiasis that causes abnormal swelling of the lower legs. The disease is a considerable public health problem and economic burden in countries like Ethiopia, where it affects up to 1 million people.

While the most common form of elephantiasis is caused by biological agents, research suggests that podoconiosis may be triggered by irritant mineral particles found in soils formed from ancient volcanic eruptions.  

Research

Museum scientists are working on a collaborative project to identify specific triggers within soils and geological deposits that could potentially cause podoconiosis. The team includes the Brighton and Sussex Medical School and researchers in Ethiopia.

Preliminary results indicate that fine clay minerals may play an important role in disease initiation. These findings are already challenging current hypotheses regarding the causes of podoconiosis.

This research is contributing to our understanding and awareness of podoconiosis, and the team's ultimate aim is to eradicate the disease.

This project is funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Project background

During the 1970s Dr Ernest Price, a British leprologist, established the link between irritant soils of volcanic origin and this form of elephantiasis. Dr Price described the disease and named it 'podoconiosis', from the Greek words for 'foot' and 'dust'.

Symptoms of mild podoconiosis.

Symptoms of mild podoconiosis. © J Le Blond

The symptoms of podoconiosis have been identified in many regions around the world, including Africa, Central America and Asia. 

It is particularly well documented in Ethiopia, where misconceptions about the cause of the disease have led to social stigmatism. 

Podoconiosis was classified as a neglected tropical disease by the World Health Organization in 2011, but no government-backed assistance programmes were introduced to address prevention and treatment. 

Previous research suggests that years of walking barefoot on irritant soils results in abnormal swelling and growth of lesions on the legs and feet. However not everyone who lives and works on irritant soils without shoes becomes affected, and our research has identified a strong hereditary susceptibility to podoconiosis.

Project staff

Dr Gail Davey (principal investigator)
Brighton and Sussex Medical School

Dr Jennifer Le Blond
Imperial College London
Natural History Museum

Dr Javier Cuadros
Natural History Museum

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