Getting to the bottom of pit latrine faeces earns Lorika Beukes a PhD

By Lee Rondganger Time of article published Jun 1, 2020

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Durban - Emptying a pit latrine, filled with faecal sludge to investigate the microbes present in it, may not be the average person's passion or idea of a dream job.

But Pietermaritzburg born, Dr Lorika Beukes is not your average person.

A prinicipal microscopy technician at UKZN’s Microscopy and Microanalysis Unit (MMU) her passion has been researching the growing global threat of antimicrobial resistance which meant that she had to empty pit latrines in Durban and take skin samples from municipal workers to find out the level of microbial contamination.

Now, her hours behind the microscope has finally paid off after she received her PhD in Microbiology for her investigation of the presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria present in pit latrine faecal sludge and the presence of bacterial contamination on household surfaces.

The achievement is a highlight in her career, Beukes said, adding that after matriculated she had to go work to help support her family and still pursue academics. 

"When you come from a disadvantaged community (Woodlands in Pietermaritzburg), your first option when leaving school is always finding employment rather than studying. I am glad that I could have done both," she said.  

Her PhD came after the work she did in a community in eThekwini, where she detected multi-drug resistant (MDR) bacteria present in pit latrine faecal sludge, and determined the level of microbial contamination on household surfaces and municipal workers’ skin surface before and after manual pit latrine emptying.

"In South Africa there is a lack of data on the screening and emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria from pit latrines and the potential health risks for those emptying them," explained Beukes. 

"This research has generated data required to verify the potential risks involved with pit latrine biosolids produced in poor communities," she said.

Beukes discovered an increase in microbial contamination on household surfaces and municipal workers’ skin after pit emptying, and said this revealed the vital need to educate both municipal workers and household members on personal hygiene, emphasising thorough handwashing and the correct use of personal protective equipment. 

This finding is particularly salient in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

"There is still a clear lack of knowledge and/or poor attitudes toward proper hygiene, and therefore, despite the improvement of sanitation facilities, there is no guarantee that these systems will be used correctly," she said.

This is particularly of concern in a country with high rates of infection with HIV and tuberculosis, where diarrheal diseases are still one of the top ten leading causes of child deaths. 

Additionally, Beukes noted that the bacteria found in pit latrine faecal sludge are highly resistant to critical, last resort antibiotics, possibly indicating overuse or misuse of antibiotics and a gap in knowledge about the proper use of these life-saving medicines.

This study, the first of its kind in this locale, will form a baseline for similar research in the future. 

The data generated will enable the implementation of safer handling procedures of materials harbouring MDR pathogens, and create awareness on the need for proper personal hygiene and sanitation.

Beukes, who attended Haythorne Secondary and grew up in Woodlands - both in Pietermaritzburg -  has presented her findings at local and international conferences, and has published her research in international peer-reviewed journals.

"Working with human feces for my PhD project was very challenging but as a microbiologist, you become accustomed to working with the 'nasties'," she said.

"Pit latrines can be a physical danger in many peri-urban communities notwithstanding the potential health risk they pose to community members and municipal workers (who empty them) due to the potential pathogens contained in the fecal sludge. I particularly enjoyed my PhD research project on antimicrobial resistance as it is a trending topic in the medical field, reflecting the overuse and/or misuse of critical last resort antibiotics in our communities and healthcare industries, resulting in what we call “superbugs” (multi-drug resistant bacteria). These superbugs pose a great health risk to community members who are infected with them as treatment for these infections is very limited".

Beukes completed all of her qualifications at UKZN, being drawn to the discipline of microbiology while completing her Bachelor of Science in Biomolecular technology. 

During her undergraduate studies, she volunteered at Umgeni Water’s microbiology laboratory, further fuelling her natural love of the sciences. 

She said that UKZN, home to many internationally recognised microbiology experts, provided excellent grounding for her research.

Beukes has worked at the MMU for six years, and pursuing her research while working has strengthened both her academic and technical expertise. 

She gained teaching experience during her studies through demonstrating, tutoring, and serving as a teaching assistant.

"I use my experience to train students and commercial clients on the best way forward with analysing their research samples, and collaborate with local and international peers on various projects that require microscopy analysis,’ she said.

Beukes, expressed gratitude to God for her success, and thanked her family and friends for their support, saying she is the first member of the Beukes and Dirks branches of her family to attain a PhD - the first person do this in her family. 

She dedicated her success to both her families. 

Beukes thanked her supervisor Professor Stefan Schmidt for his constant guidance and expert advice, and thanked her laboratory mates and colleagues at the MMU, particularly Ms Ntombozuko Matyumza.

Daily News

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