Researchers study chicken farming and drug-resistant bacteria in children in rural Ecuador
BORBON, Ecuador—Hayden Hedman and two members of his field research team make their way up a small hill into the community of Borbón in northern Ecuador. Palm trees and lush greenery contrast with the dry dirt road that leads to the researchers’ destination.
For the last three years, Hedman and his team of 10 field researchers have been studying the production chicken farming practices in this remote area of Ecuador to evaluate the behavior and movement of drug-resistant bacteria.
Like many communities throughout Ecuador, Borbón—one of the largest towns in the region—has grown increasingly dependent on chicken as a way of obtaining food security. Chicken production has quadrupled in the country since 1990.
In Borbón, brown, gray and speckled backyard chickens, known here as criollos, roam about the land, digging into the dirt for worms, eating food scraps, foraging in the jungle. In a chicken coop nearby, white ‘broiler’ chickens are tenderly cared for, fed promptly and given medicine when they look like they’re suffering from ‘ahogo,’ or lack of air, something common for the birds that have a hard time adjusting to the tropical climate.
Hedman’s research is part of EcoDess, a larger, longitudinal study led by Joseph Eisenberg, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, that seeks to understand how new highways have affected the epidemiology of pathogens causing diarrheal diseases and the spread of antibiotic resistance. The work focuses on the area of Cantón Eloy Alfaro at the confluence of three river basins: Río Capays, Río Santiago and Río Onzole.
The project, initially financed by the NIH, started in 2000 and over the years, researchers have developed protocols to gauge the impact of environmental and social changes in the area, Eisenberg says.
“The road opened the way for micro industries focused on economic development,” he said. “For families or communities to sell chickens was a very important development. But these chickens are being fed a lot of antibiotics as growth promoters. And so the question was: How does the use of antibiotics in animals impact antibiotic resistance in the community?”
Of unicorns, reptiles and chickens
Hedman describes himself as a public health unicorn. Chickens and antibiotic resistance were not top of mind as he embarked on his studies.
The U-M doctoral candidate graduated magna cum laude from the University of Colorado with a major in ecology and evolutionary biology. His honors thesis focused on the effects of invasive fish on the wetlands. In Costa Rica, he studied aggression in amphibians. In Peru, he surveyed the reptile and amphibian population explosion at an ecotourism resort.
And at U-M, Hedman helped with the preservation, care and management of the university’s avian, herpetology and reptile collections as he pursued his doctorate in the School of Environment and Sustainability.
But all along, he said, something was missing: he yearned to work directly with people and was anxious to see the direct impact from his research. He found out about EcoDess and the drug-resistance research subproject, and thought this would be the perfect match.
“I found this intersection of not only looking at infectious diseases but how they can go from animals to humans, especially poultry because most of the world is dependent on that,” Hedman said. “I had the skills, I knew how to work in the field, my Spanish was OK. So it was more about applying those skills to questions that were more meaningful to me.”
How did the chicken (bacteria) cross the (drug-resistance) road?
Hedman and colleagues began their research by conducting qualitative interviews with families, veterinarians, vendors, customers and residents to better understand their perspectives on poultry farming.
“I’m not a social scientist, but a lot of my work is doing interviews with local workers and others in the community,” Hedman said. “This work discussing life and assessing social conditions has to precede all of my quantitative field work, because if I don’t get the social stuff right, I won’t be asking the right questions and collecting the right data in the field.
“If we continue to look for the same signs and signals in our work, we might not only miss important data in the field—we could actually make things worse.”
Those conversations led Hedman to believe that working with children made sense for the study. After all, children work closely with their mothers, the primary caretakers of the chickens. Children also are the ones running around freely in the environment as those criollo chickens do.
The researchers followed 10 households with chickens. They took fecal samples from birds and children, and took them to Quito for analysis. There, along with colleagues from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, they isolated the bacteria and tested for phenotype. After recording the results, scientists sent the DNA to collaborators from U-M and Michigan State University to test for genotype antibiotic resistance susceptibility.
While they expect results to be published later this year, the preliminary research is alarming: researchers found a high prevalence of cefotaxime, an antibiotic used to treat a broad spectrum of bacterial infections. Among broiler chickens, phenotype resistance was 69.6 percent compared to criollo chickens at 2.6 percent.
“It’s alarming to see it in such high prevalence among food production animals when our previous work has documented its prevalence in both criollo and humans at around 5 percent,” Hedman said.
As a side project, Hedman attached GPS units on criollo chickens to monitor their behavior and movement patterns. He hopes this will help understand how antibiotic resistance and zoonotic diseases spread into the environment.
“As a trained ecologist, [Hedman] has a distinct perspective that allows us to glean different kinds of insights and different ways to conduct studies that we didn’t necessarily think about,” Eisenberg said. “That is a very valuable contribution.”
Food security and health? You can have it all
Hedman emphasizes he’s not opposed to chicken farming, nor does he deny the benefits poultry brings to these communities.
“It provides protein security, economic security and gender equity to many in the developing world,” he said.
But, he points out, 80 percent of chicken production worldwide occurs in small-scale food systems yielding up to 90 percent of the total poultry products in many low- and middle-income countries such as Ecuador.
He worries that small farms in rural areas might be falling through the cracks, and farmers might not be informed about the risks of overmedicating their chickens.
“These are areas where there’s very little regulation and often no surveillance,” he said.
Cartoons, balloons and bingo
In fall 2017, Hedman returned to Ecuador to share his preliminary findings with the community, utilizing a three-pronged approach that included cartoons, balloons and bingo.
Using language informed by those early interviews, Hedman and colleagues created booklets, in English and Spanish, on “How to Raise Broiler Chicken” (“Como Criar Pollos Broiler”). The literature details the cost and process to build a coop and raise chickens, how to safely store food, and what signals to watch for that may indicate illness in a bird. Utilizing photos and diagrams, the booklet also illustrates how excessive antibiotics can be hazardous to animal and human health.
They also made up a game to show how bacteria spreads between humans and animals. They gave balloons with the colors of the Ecuadorian flag to symbolize different types of bacteria and, as players collided, they exchanged balloons, showing how the contact could spread the bacteria.
“It was a quick way for people to understand how easy it is for balloons, or bacteria, to be transferred based on the frequency of contacts,” he said.
But by far the most popular lesson came by way of bingo, Hedman says. Community members, who would normally arrive at meetings more than a half hour late or more, arrived before the appointed hour and patiently waited for the game to start.
Instead of regular Bingo cards, players received cards covered in words relevant to chicken raising, like “alimentos,” “pollo de engorde” or “fatiga.”
“Just like Bingo, raising chickens depends a lot on luck,” Hedman said. “You need to have funds, you need to have the right temperature, you need to make sure it’s not too wet but not too dry. And just like in Bingo, you might win some times. But nobody wins all the time.”
Hedman hopes the information he shared with the community will help them adjust their farming techniques.
Eisenberg, the EcoDess lead researcher, said if presented correctly, the information can help small farmers become more informed advocates for themselves.
“If we present it right, that information accompanied with specific interventions can help people think about ways to improve the conditions in their own communities, but also provides them with information to actually argue for more resources from provincial and national agencies,” he said.
“Data and information is a very powerful way to argue for what you need. And it’s also valuable for us to know the community’s perspective with respect to what we’re doing so we can tailor the work that we do.”
Hedman hopes that he and his team have helped the farmers of Borbón and that their chickens stay healthier.
“But it is up to the local communities to decide how they tell this story going forward,” he said.