Antibiotic resistant bacteria emanating from pit latrines in KwaZulu-Natal was the subject of research undertaken by Dr Lorika Beukes for her PhD in Microbiology.

Beukes, a principal microscopy technician at UKZN’s Microscopy and Microanalysis Unit (MMU), was awarded her doctorate during the University’s virtual Graduation ceremony.

Her research uncovered the presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria present in pit latrine faecal sludge and the presence of bacterial contamination on household surfaces after manual pit latrine emptying in a peri-urban community.

Beukes was interested in this research because of the growing global threat of antimicrobial resistance.

Working in a community in eThekwini, 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 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,’ said Beukes. ‘This research has generated data required to verify the potential risks involved with pit latrine biosolids produced in poor communities.’

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 about 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,’ said Beukes.

This is particularly of concern in a country with high rates of HIV and tuberculosis infection, where diarrheal diseases are still among the top 10 leading causes of child deaths. Additionally, Beukes noted that the bacteria found in pit latrine faecal sludge were 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 about the need for proper personal hygiene and sanitation.

Beukes has presented her findings at local and international conferences, and has published her research in international peer-reviewed journals.

She completed all 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 for analysing their research samples, and collaborate with local and international peers on various projects that require microscopy analysis,’ she said.

Beukes thanked God for her success, and also her family and friends for their support, saying she is the first member of her family to be awarded a PhD. She dedicated her success to her extended family, and thanked her supervisor Professor Stefan Schmidt for his constant guidance and expert advice, and her laboratory mates and colleagues at the MMU, particularly Ms Ntombozuko Matyumza.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied