Peter Hotez, a scientist who has devoted his career to battling hookworm, will tell his story at UGA on Feb. 28 as the second speaker in the “Global Diseases: Voices from the Vanguard” lecture series sponsored by the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
His lecture, entitled “Hookworm: The Great Infection of Mankind,” will take place at 6 p.m. in the Chapel. It is free and open to the public.
Few modern-day Georgians realize that 40 percent of Southerners were infected with hookworm a century ago. The gaunt bodies and distended bellies that marked hookworm sufferers have disappeared because most people now wear shoes, use indoor toilets and eat more protein than their ancestors.
People in tropical regions aren’t so lucky. There, the blood-sucking intestinal parasite still afflicts an estimated 740 million people. The largest numbers of cases occur in impoverished rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, China and Latin America. Approximately 3.2 billion people are at risk for hookworm infection in these areas. The disease is particularly devastating to children.
Despite the huge numbers of people infected, the world’s major pharmaceutical companies are not interested in developing a preventive vaccine, according to Hotez.
“Let’s remember who gets hookworm-it’s the poorest of the poor,” says Hotez, professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Tropical Medicine at George Washington University. “So although there is a huge market for hookworm vaccine, the commercial market is zero.”
That realization led Hotez, working with the nonprofit Sabin Vaccine Institute, to set up the Human Hookworm Vaccine Initiative.
As principal scientist for the initiative, Hotez has created an experimental vaccine to prevent hookworm-related malnutrition and anemia.
Today, the public-private partnership, supported largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is preparing to establish the vaccine’s safety by testing it among healthy people in the U.S. in FDA-approved phase one trials.
The next step will be to determine its protective efficacy through a series of trials in Minas Gerais State, Brazil. People in this area are routinely exposed to hookworm infection.
Dan Colley, director of the university’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, is very excited about the Brazilian component.
“Peter will take the candidate vaccine to the field for phase two and three trials, and he is doing it right,” Colley says. “His team is collaborating with scientists at the Centro de Pesquisas, ‘Rene Rachou,’ an institute that is part of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in the Brazilian Ministry of Health.”
Hotez worked with scientists to have the vaccine produced in Brazil.
“This involvement of scientists, institutes and the government at the grassroots level of vaccine development is a very positive and productive way to tackle this challenge,” Colley says. “It will ensure that once the vaccine is proven safe and effective, it will get to those who need it.”
Colley is very familiar with Brazil, having worked there intermittently for 35 years studying the immunology of parasitic diseases. He also received the country’s highest scientific honor, the Brazilian Order of Scientific Merit, for his contributions to the scientific development of the country.
The “Global Diseases: Voices from the Vanguard” lecture series is a joint effort of Colley and Patricia Thomas, Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism at the university’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Two additional lectures are planned for March 28 and April 18. All lectures will be held at 6 p.m. in the Chapel, followed by a reception at Demosthenian Hall.