Wash U center aims to increase collaboration on global health

Apr 18, 2013
Originally published on April 13, 2013 1:29 pm

Researchers from all over the world are gathering today at Washington University for a conference on global health.

The event is the first to be organized by the university’s recently-created Center for Global Health and Infectious Disease. St. Louis Public Radio’s Véronique LaCapra spoke with the Center’s director Bill Powderly about its mission.

POWDERLY: It’s a virtual center. What we’re trying to do is get together investigators and their students who have an interest in a variety of illnesses: parasitic infections, worm infections, some viral infections, and illnesses like tuberculosis and cholera, all of which have major impact on a worldwide basis and cause a considerable amount of illness and death every year.

So in what ways could researchers potentially learn from one another? Say you have a researcher working on HIV/AIDS, and you have another one working tuberculosis, how can they help each other?

POWDERLY: First of all, many of these infections share mechanisms of transmission. So, for example, quite a few of them are mosquito-borne. And so if one is thinking about controlling one infection that’s transmitted by mosquitoes, there will be an impact for other infections.

The other thing that often comes up is that the mechanisms these parasites use to evade the immune system in the individual who’s infected — the host — is often a shared mechanism, or a similar mechanism.

So you can learn from strategies that the body has had to adapt to, to control one infection, as a means to potentially control another infection.

And finally, when we get to implementation of any of the research that we hope will come out of the laboratory science, you’re going to have to go into these countries, these areas that are affected, and deal with the fact that there are multiple infections and multiple problems. And so having a shared approach to that is very important.

Is there an effort to have collaborations not just within Wash U but maybe with researchers in developing countries as well?

POWDERLY: Absolutely. One of the critical goals of the Center for Global Health is to increase collaboration in other countries. We have collaborations all over Latin America, in quite a number of African countries, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi, and many parts of South Asia as well.

Because it’s not just about people from the United States or from Europe coming and telling people in other parts of the world what to do, it’s actually about working closely with people there, helping them solve their problems, and developing not only the physical infrastructure but the human capital that will lead to a sustained development and a much more long-term success in each of those countries.

We’re talking about developing countries because these are diseases that are not endemic to the U.S.

POWDERLY: Most of the diseases we’re talking about in the Center for Global Health and Infectious Diseases are not endemic in the United States, although one or two of the could become endemic again, they were previously. Malaria’s a very good example of that.

So that used to be here.

POWDERLY: Malaria used to be here. People used to leave Washington, DC, in the summer because of malaria, not just because of the heat and to get away from the politics. So the climatic situation for a disease like malaria returning to the United States is actually there, but it isn’t currently endemic.

However, we’re not immune from these infections, and they are two populations, or groups of people in the United States that develop these infections and bring them back, and so we do see them in our medical centers.

One are immigrants who’ve come from these countries to live or work in the United States. And the second are travelers. And we’re in an era of much more increased international travel. People go to many countries for business, for tourist reasons.

And we obviously have situations where our military are in countries where some of these diseases are endemic. And our soldiers can pick up these infections and come back home with them. So it is of relevance to many Americans, even if they’re not diseases that we see every day.

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