The University of Georgia Research Foundation has received an additional $710,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to expand its research into the elimination of schistosomiasis, a neglected tropical disease affecting millions of people throughout most of Africa and some of Asia, the Middle East and the Americas, to include studies on control and elimination of intestinal worms that infect almost 2 billion people globally.
This grant adds to the more than $22 million in support awarded to UGA by the Gates Foundation since 2008, when researchers in the Schistosomiasis Consortium for Operational Research and Evaluation, or SCORE, began looking for ways to gain control of and ultimately eliminate the disease that causes more than an estimated 200,000 deaths per year in sub-Saharan Africa alone, according to the World Health Organization.
“We’ve made great progress in our understanding of this disease and what must be done to stop it,” said Dan Colley, director of UGA’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases and principal investigator for the project. “This latest supplement will expand our research to include parallel studies on the debilitating and even more widespread soil-transmitted helminths, round worm, whipworm and hookworms, and it will carry the project forward to 2018.”
Schistosomiasis is a parasitic disease caused by several species of worms belonging to the genus Schistosoma. The parasite’s life cycle begins when human waste containing eggs enters the water, whereupon the eggs hatch. Free-swimming hatchlings then seek out and infect freshwater snails. The hatchlings mature and replicate inside the snails, eventually releasing tens of thousands of larval parasites that burrow into the skin of humans who wade, swim, bathe or wash in the water.
The infection can be treated with the drug praziquantel, but patients frequently are re-infected when they return to the water where they work or play. The soil-transmitted worms also are treatable with drugs, but re-infection rates are high due to the contaminated environment in which many people live.
“Controlling schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted worms isn’t as simple as diagnosing the disease and prescribing a treatment,” said Colley, who is a microbiologist in UGA’s
Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “We have to consider people’s behavior, their environment, social and cultural practices as well as all the medical and field data required to develop strong treatment programs.”
SCORE researchers are working with African communities and governments to evaluate mass drug administration, snail control, diagnostic tests and sanitation and hygiene changes designed to slow or stop disease spread.
One of their first major studies, representing more than five years of fieldwork and data collection, will be ready for analysis this year. They hope these and subsequent results will ultimately reveal the right combination of techniques necessary to gain control of the disease and sustain that control until it is eliminated.
“It’s difficult to explain what a monumental task this is,” Colley said. “The project requires the hard work of dozens of partners in academia, government and nonprofit organizations and hundreds of field and laboratory workers, all of whom have been invaluable in fighting these diseases that globally affect so many of those in poverty.”