Athens, Ga. – Every year, 50,000 people die in East Africa from tuberculosis. Worldwide, 1.5 million people die from the disease. And when HIV infection is added to the mix, TB becomes even more deadly. The University of Georgia is fighting against these numbers with a new $1.49 million grant from the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health.
UGA is partnering with Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, to train Ugandan scientists in new and emerging methods increasingly important in understanding the complex transmission dynamics of HIV and Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium responsible for tuberculosis.
According to the World Health Organization, TB infections now rival HIV/AIDS as a leading cause of death from infectious diseases. Persons co-infected with TB and HIV are estimated to be 27-32 times more likely to develop active TB disease than persons without HIV.
“Infectious diseases do not respect human political borders,” said Dr. Christopher Whalen, the grant’s principal investigator and the Ernest Corn Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology in the UGA College of Public Health. “What is in Africa today could be in the U.S. tomorrow. Remember the concern about Ebola? It is better to contain infectious diseases at their source. To do this, you must build capacity in areas where the disease is most serious.”
UGA will use the five-year grant to enhance computational and molecular epidemiology training in tuberculosis and HIV in Uganda. To achieve this goal, the program will train two predoctoral students in molecular and computational epidemiology, offer non-degree technical training in computational epidemiology and bioinformatics, and support a variety of additional research and training activities in Uganda.
Training will be integrated into ongoing research projects Whalen is leading to investigate how social interactions that make up daily life in Uganda contribute to TB transmission in the context of a mature HIV epidemic.
Bioinformatics and computational epidemiology are currently not available in Uganda. “Disease transmission is difficult to study because it involves a community,” Whalen said. “Since it is not possible to study everyone in a community, we use the molecular and computational approaches to infer patterns of transmission within the community.”
The program builds on 25 years of research and training collaborations Whalen has established with public health and academic institutions in Uganda and will further enhance the research capacity needed to address the country’s co-epidemics of TB and HIV.
Key collaborators from Makerere University include Moses Joloba, chair of the department of medical microbiology in the College of Health Sciences; and Noah Kiwanuka, an infectious disease epidemiologist at its School of Public Health.
Andreas Handel, associate professor, and Ming Zhang, assistant professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the UGA College of Public Health, will also contribute to the program’s training efforts.
The research is being supported by the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health under award number D43TW010045.