The UGA-Gorgas Memorial Institute team

Vector-borne diseases—those transmitted by biting insects like mosquitoes and ticks—pose a significant health threat to more than half of the world’s population. Finding ways to control these diseases—many of which are zoonotic, meaning they can spread among wildlife, domestic animals and humans—requires understanding both the social and ecological contexts in which they occur.

The University of Georgia and the Gorgas Memorial Institute of Health Studies in Panama have been awarded a three-year $1.6 million Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate relationships between habitat characteristics, human activity, and disease transmission for two zoonotic vector-borne tropical diseases: cutaneous leishmaniasis and Chagas disease.  Based out of UGA’s Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases, the award will unite an interdisciplinary and international team of veterinarians, anthropologists, ecologists, and parasitologists.

Chagas disease infects an estimated 10 million people and is a leading cause of cardiac morbidity and mortality in Latin America. Cutaneous leishmaniasis causes disfiguring sores and is treated with expensive and potentially toxic medicines.  This grant’s research results have the potential to inform public health policy in affected communities, potentially reducing the health burden for these costly, chronic diseases, as well as lowering the risk for northward advance of the disease ranges. The approaches developed by this research may apply to other emerging infectious diseases as well.

Researchers from UGA and Gorgas will investigate parasite exposure, how land use change affects parasite transmission, how people perceive their personal health risks, and how changes in human behavior affect environmental management practices, public health policy and attitudes toward land use change.  Researchers will develop a new mathematical framework integrating those field data to show how deforestation and reforestation, and associated human activities impact zoonotic infectious diseases. 

“Chagas disease and cutaneous leishmaniasis are considered neglected diseases that affect the most vulnerable populations and that need new approaches for prevention and control,” said Azael Saldaña, head of parasitology at the Gorgas Memorial Institute. “This project brings new opportunities to generate valuable information, consistent with the epidemiological scenario of these two diseases in Panama. Results from this project will assist the Ministry of Health in Panama to take relevant measures that reduce the transmission of these parasitic infections to human populations,” he said.  “Better scientific understanding of how environmental factors like temperature and rainfall interact with economic and cultural factors to influence land use change and disease transmission is crucially needed to reduce the burden of these diseases,” said John Drake, one of the study’s principal investigators.

Researchers leading the work are (in alphabetical order) Sonia Altizer (Odum School of Ecology) José Calzada (Gorgas, Department of Parasitology), Luis Fernando Chaves (Gorgas, Department of Parasitology), John Drake (Odum School of Ecology), Nicole Gottdenker (College of Veterinary Medicine), Richard Hall (Odum School of Ecology), Azael Saldaña (Gorgas, Department of Parasitology), JP Schmidt (Odum School of Ecology), Susan Tanner (Department of Anthropology), and Julie Velásquez Runk (Department of Anthropology and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute).  Drake, Gottdenker, Hall, Saldaña, Schmidt, and Tanner are principal investigators for the research.

University of Georgia-sponsored seed grants were critical to the proposal’s success. The project builds on a University of Georgia-U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collaborative seed grant to a team of faculty in anthropology, veterinary pathology and ecology and the Gorgas Memorial Institute. Subsequent preliminary research was supported by a UGA Presidential Interdisciplinary Seed Grant.

“Over time, we have come to appreciate the profound and interrelated influences of environmental change and human activity on the outbreak and spread of infectious diseases,” said David Lee, UGA vice president for research. “The development of meaningful prevention strategies therefore requires the engagement of interdisciplinary research teams that combine the relevant disciplines. As a comprehensive research university, UGA is ideally suited to help lead this important effort.”

Story by Trippe Ross
All photos courtesy Nicole Gottdenker