Passage to India, with parasites in mind

SIMON Bishop's the kind of guest you'd welcome at a party when the embers are dying down and scary stories emerge from the shadows.This is a man whose computer “wallpaper” is a magnified image of a worm of the squatting-in-your-intestines variety.

SIMON Bishop's the kind of guest you'd welcome at a party when the embers are dying down and scary stories emerge from the shadows.

This is a man whose computer “wallpaper” is a magnified image of a worm of the squatting-in-your-intestines variety. If he went on Mastermind, his specialist subject would be parasitology - and within that particular branch of science there are many true tales to amaze, revolt and frighten the very bone marrow from the assembled throng.

Take a little tapeworm that commonly lives in dogs and those eggs are excreted in faeces. If we unwittingly get them on our hands, fail to wash, and then put our fingers in our mouths - or shake hands with someone and pass on the infection - we're storing up trouble.

“It was a big problem in Iceland,” says Simon, an animal science lecturer at Writtle College, near Chelmsford. “The eggs can get inside you, they hatch, and find a site: usually it's your liver or your lungs or your brain. They produce something called a hydatic cyst, which is like a cyst you might get on your body but they've got growing tapeworms inside. They grow and grow and grow, and they can get really big. If you go on the internet you'll see some lovely pictures of huge football-sized growths.” On people? “On people.”

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“If it's somewhere soft, such as your liver, it will keep growing and you'll see a big swelling. There have been cases where it's in the brain and it has split the skull, because of the enormous pressure of this growing thing.”

Ugh. And how widespread is this ailment?

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“Not very common. It's common where dogs and people and livestock live together, so it's common in northern Europe - it occurs in the UK - and it was really common in Iceland. What they did was take a draconian measure and got rid of all domestic dogs.”

Whoever coined the phrase “ignorance is bliss” never spoke a truer word. Quick - let's get on to the main subject: Simon's six weeks in northern India during the summer.

It was something of a dream trip, but no holiday: his “homework” was to research and document traditional methods of parasite control in animals, in the hope Indian knowledge and practice could help farmers in the UK.

The western world could do with a helping hand, as parasites are great survivalists good at developing resistance to drug- and chemical-based treatments.

A sheep or a cow fighting a parasitic infection might die, but more likely is that it just won't thrive - and the farmer will therefore get a lower price for his produce, explains Simon. “With farmers today, the margins they're working with are so small that anything that takes a piece of that is an issue.”

In the UK, the biggest risk is worm infection picked up from grass. Animals defecate on the pasture, other animals later come along and eat the pasture - and the eggs of the parasite.

It was common for sheep to be drenched with drugs several times a year to treat worm infection; but, in places like Australia and South America, worms have developed great resistance and the drugs now have little effect.

“The key to deal with parasites - sorry if I'm ranting - is not to rely on drugs, because you know that sooner or later they're going to become resistant. There's no way of escaping that if you don't change anything else.

“You have to try to break the life cycle in some other way. With sheep, for example, you use clean grazing: so you move them from dirty pasture, then more clean pasture the year after, and again the year after. These worms can survive for at least a year - some species for two years - so you can't use the same piece of ground earlier than a three- or four-year rotation. If you do that, you'll keep the worm burden low, naturally. But heavy stocking, and relying on drugs, is not sustainable.”

With parasites, the secret of their success is sheer numbers, Simon suggests. “With tapeworms, particularly, they cast out thousands of eggs a day - 99.99% are just going to die, but all it needs is one to get to you. I dislike them because I see them as an adversary, but I respect them because of how successful they are.”

His trip was funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. Its travelling fellowship scheme allows successful applicants to acquire knowledge overseas that will benefit people back home.

With his trip costing between £4,000 and £5,000, Simon says he simply wouldn't have been able to go without the trust's support.

“When you've got so many kids, and a lecturer's salary, it's pretty much hand to mouth - always in the red,” he smiles. (He and his wife have six children, aged from one year old to 12, and another imminent.)

Simon brought back to East Anglia about 10 different types of dried plant that he'll investigate in college as and when teaching commitments allow, in the hope they hold answers to the UK's parasite problems.

Lab trials are already under way on some Chinese material sent to him by his father, who lives in Hong Kong. Simon will have a Petri dish containing agar and E. coli. “And on this lawn of E. coli I've got some nematodes: microscopic worms.” They're the kind of thing we might find in our compost heap, steadily munching on bacteria.

“They eat the E. coli - Pedigree Chum for worms. Then I give it different strengths of extract from these different plants. I estimate how many of my free-living worms have lived and how many have died, to see how effective it is against parasitic worms generally. Once I've done that, I'll try them on livestock. It's a way of filtering out what's likely to work and what's likely not to.”

In his first screening he found something from China that seemed to work, but many more tests will be required to eradicate the possibilities of human error and to check it's a component of the plant material that's the active ingredient and not something else that's responsible.

It is, he grins, a long process - with these first investigations akin to “baby steps”. But there's always the hope one of these plants might offer a breakthrough.

Simon, 36, became interested in parasites when he studied agriculture at university in Bangor and did an undergraduate module in parasitology that he enjoyed more than anything else. Why?

“I guess it's a world within a world. You can be walking about within your understanding of the world, and there can be things living inside you in their own little world. You're their ecosystem and they get on with things without you knowing what's going on.”

They're also adept at slipping into their hosts in all kinds of different ways.

“We think we're very technologically advanced . . . we can slow them down, but we can't stop these things. Really simple animals, and so fragile, but so pervasive and so persistent.”

It's a bit like the film Alien - reminding us of our vulnerability to nature.

“Just like that, really. Life is like that, only not so dramatic.”

WHILE scientific research was the reason for his trip, a romantic vision of rail travel around India also figured very strongly in Simon Bishop's imagination as he flew east.

Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar is his favourite book - an evocative account of an epic journey from London to Tokyo and back. It's full of colour, quirky passengers, memorable sights and smells - and many a mishap. It's an Adventure with a capital A.

“I must have read it, honestly, a couple of dozen times,” enthuses Simon. “He talks about the railway being a continuous moving bazaar - different characters, different people. His descriptions have always wanted me to travel through India by train, and compare that to travelling through the UK.”

He'd lived in Hong Kong at one time - his father worked there - and looked upon himself as an experienced traveller. Even so, Simon admits India stopped him in his tracks for a while.

“Before I went, I thought it would be no problem. Get to India, though, and it's so like nowhere I've been before. You know the expression 'culture shock' . . . I always thought it was an expression people just threw out, but the first couple of days I was just . . .” and he mimes a glazed, overwhelmed expression.

What exactly?

“The number of people - really an absolute seething mass of humanity. You walk down the street and you're swimming through people. People talk to you all the time: not in an unpleasant way, trying to con you, but they're trying to extract money simply because they don't have any. It's the only way they have. It's either do that or don't eat.

“Still, it's very intense. Coupled with the heat; coupled with the very poor sanitation - because there aren't the resources to keep it clean, and there are a lot of people. So the noise and the smells - spices and music - overpowers your senses and takes you a while to filter all that out.”

Simon tried to cover as much as he could in six weeks, communicating daily with his family back in Suffolk by phone and email. He “pretty much lived on the train”. They could be crowded and hot, with a fan simply stirring the air.

“It wasn't quite Paul Theroux - not as romantic as I'd thought,” Simon admits. “He travelled first class and I travelled locally, because I was doing it on someone else's money, but it was nice to see the changing landscape.”

His photographs record the variety: from the colour and crowding of Delhi to the deserts and glorious scenery of Rajasthan, The Golden Temple at Amritsar, and the famous Hindu holy city at Varanasi, in the foothills of the Himalayas and perched on the banks of the Ganges.

Train travel also proved a vibrant experience. “There's people walking down, selling food, all the time. I used to have samosas, or a different vegetarian meal. There were entertainers playing different instruments, or a snake-charmer with a big cobra. I touched the cobra on the head. You don't get that on buses here! It is like a bazaar.”

And very different to commuting from his home in Stowmarket to Writtle, where's he's worked for about three years. Sometimes he drives; sometimes he takes the train via Ipswich.

In India, Simon was often the only European in a carriage. “Everybody wants to talk to you and practise their English. You're often the focus of attention, but it's not like it would be here: it's in a positive way. They're very warm and open people - very generous and pragmatic.”

Sorry to ask, but did he ever fall ill?

“Yeah. I just had a couple of days of diarrhoea. I was careful. I drank only bottled water - and you've got to check the seals to make sure they're not broken - and I ate at vendors, but only if it was freshly cooked.”

Bearing in mind his knowledge about infection, it's not surprising he travelled around with a supply of alcohol rub - the kind you'll find in hospitals - and was fanatical about washing his hands.

It was a great, once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

“When I was there I was saying to myself 'I'm not coming here again', because it was very hard and I lost quite a lot of weight - half a stone to a stone. Meals could be infrequent on trains. It was hot, and you were doing a lot of walking. Unfortunately, I put it on again!

“It's not a holiday; it was hard work. But looking back, when you've done something hard that's rewarding - and it's always the same with me - doing it is not so pleasant, but when you look back at it you're so glad you went - and so grateful to these guys for allowing me to go.”

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