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Baboons, people and shared diseases in South Africa

(Julian Drewe - 2010 Postdoc Public Engagement Competition Winners)

In collaboration with colleagues from the Baboon Research Unit at University of Cape Town, Julian Drewe ran an interactive evening seminar at a homeless people's shelter in Cape Town. This was not your usual audience! The focus was on disease risks from wildlife which had particular relevance because of the very close contact between people and wild baboons in this area.

Baboon raiding dustbin

Sixty-three people attended – a fantastic turnout, and one that suggests a real willingness to learn and to contribute opinions. The aim was to challenge assumptions and be challenged ourselves. There was plenty of discussion and questions both from the speakers and the audience. Not only were they able to provide information and advice, but they were also able to discover things themselves, such as what people's biggest concerns and worries about animal diseases actually are.

This information is currently being used to guide future research into disease transmission between animals and people to ensure that it has even greater impact and relevance to local communities. The long term impact of this public engagement event will be a better understanding and integration of human and wildlife health in poor communities in South Africa.

I was surprised and delighted by the extraordinary level of interest in our work shown by members of the public from a range of backgrounds. I really hadn't expected this appetite for science and it has led me to reflect on how, until now, my interaction with the public has been limited. I enjoy public speaking and as a result of this public engagement exercise I shall endeavour to participate in at least one public engagement event such as this annually.

The issues raised by members of the public were not entirely predictable. This is a good thing because it provides a check that my research is actually doing something people want. It also helped identify areas for exploration that I hadn't particularly considered. On the flip side, I had overestimated people's awareness of disease risks. Most had rarely considered the risks of disease transmission to and from wildlife.

On a personal note, I found it a challenging yet rewarding experience. It was certainly very different to speaking to colleagues in a research seminar or conference presentation. Some members of the audience were not afraid to vociferously announce when they (occasionally) disagreed with something I said! Nonetheless, I was very pleasantly surprised by the high level of genuine interest shown by the majority of the people present and overall it was definitely a positive experience.

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