If you think rabies, river blindness, echinococcosis, sleeping sickness, or Buruli ulcers are diseases long conquered and reserved for plots of bad science fiction movies, think again.
January 21, 2015

Culver Academies biology instructors asked their students to research the 17 Neglected Tropical Diseases and then present their findings. The student groups made their presentations before volunteer faculty members who were serving as make-believe representatives of a philanthropic foundation looking to fund research on one of the diseases.

Mostly confined to developing regions of the world, NTDs are spread in a variety of ways, such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Prioritized by the World Health Organization, most of the diseases have known preventive measures and acute medical treatments in the developed world but those measures are not universally available in the undeveloped or poorer regions. Because of the lack of knowledge, proper hygiene, or medical treatment, thousands of people are infected each year and many die.

The students were judged by the faculty panelists on their ability to explain the biology of the disease and what their strategy is to prevent or end transmission of the disease. The presentations were limited to just 10 minutes.

Interesting points made by instructor Daniel Goduti’s students during their presentations included:

  • 20,000 people die annually from rabies in India. Bites from wildlife are the number one transmission factor. Cats are the highest domestic carrier at 4.9 percent. Dogs are at 1.1 percent.
  • Approximately one million people are infected annually with the parasitic worm that causes echinococcosis. The parasite is spread through the feces of dogs, wolves, and foxes that eat the organs of infected animals, mostly dead sheep left in the open to decompose.
  • River blindness, which is caused by a parasitic worm and carried by the black fly, has visually impaired 800,000 people with 300,000 going blind. The same medicine used to treat heartworm in dogs has proven effective in treating this disease.
  • Sleeping sickness, also caused by a parasite and spread by the tsetse fly, can be prevented by using the same mosquito netting used to prevent malaria. There are 7,200 reported cases annually in the sub-Saharan region of Africa with estimates ranging as high as 30,000.
  • Buruli ulcers are a bacterial infection that causes large ulcers on the skin and can eventually lead to bone disintegration. Children 15 and younger are most susceptible with 5,000 to 6,000 cases reported each year.

The students were judged on a rubric which examined their depth of knowledge on their selected disease, the quality of their presentation, and the strategic plan they developed to curtail the disease.


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