Health & Wellness Science & Technology

Scientists get $1.6M to study disease transmission

This award was made possible in part by research conducted through a CDC-UGA seed grant. Here, researchers including UGA’s Nicole Gottdenker, Susan Tanner, and Julie Velasquez-Runk pose with collaborators during an earlier trip to Panama.

Researchers will focus on social and ecological factors in tropical landscapes

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 the ecological and social contexts in which they occur.

Researchers associated with the University of Georgia’s Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases have received a grant to investigate the relationships between habitat characteristics, human activity and disease transmission for two zoonotic vector-borne tropical diseases: cutaneous leishmaniasis and Chagas disease.

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.

“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 CEID Director and Distinguished Research Professor of Ecology John Drake, one of the study’s principal investigators.

The project is funded by a three-year $1.6 million Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems grant from the National Science Foundation. 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.

UGA’s award will unite an interdisciplinary and international team of ecologists, veterinarians and anthropologists with scientists from the parasitology department of the Gorgas Memorial Institute of Health Studies in Panama. Researchers will develop a new mathematical framework for studying how deforestation and reforestation, and associated human activities such as yard management and vector control, impact zoonotic infectious diseases. Mathematical models will be integrated with field data on parasite exposure and environmental conditions to demonstrate how land use change affects parasite transmission.

Researchers will also investigate 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.

“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.

University of Georgia-sponsored seed grants were critical to the proposal’s success, according to Drake and co-principal investigators Nicole Gottdenker of the College of Veterinary Medicine department of pathology; JP Schmidt of the Odum School of Ecology, and Susan Tanner of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of anthropology. 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.

This project will benefit from UGA’s strengths in environmental and ecological anthropology and zoonotic vector-borne diseases, existing relationships with Panamanian collaborators, and with CEID serving as a dedicated hub for interdisciplinary research related to disease ecology. CEID’s 72 member scientists have expertise in infectious disease modeling and both experimental and field-based research.

“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.”

Researchers leading the work include lead principal investigator John Drake, co-principal investigator JP Schmidt, and Sonia Altizer of the Odum School of Ecology; Richard Hall from the Odum School and department of infectious diseases in the College of Veterinary Medicine; co-principal investigator Nicole Gottdenker of the department of veterinary pathology in the College of Veterinary Medicine; and co-principal investigator Susan Tanner and Julie Velásquez Runk of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of anthropology; and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. International collaborators at the Gorgas Memorial Institute of Health Studies department of parasitology include Dr. Azael Saldaña, Dr. Jose Calzada and Dr. Luis Fernando Chaves.

For more information about the UGA Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases visit