13 Mar 2017

About Tropical Diseases

When I was attending Biology school, I seized every chance I had for saying out loud how the completion of the Panama Canal was a Biology feat, rather than an Engineering one.
I liked to say “rather than” because for this to be possible, they had to study tropical diseases, its related vectors and organisms (mosquitoes, in particular) before attempting to treat workers affected by these diseases (…people from 80 different countries came to work in the construction of the Canal, can you imagine?). Only then they were able to continue and complete this engineering wonder that makes all of us proud. Whenever I uttered this statement, my fellow Biology students would completely agree; Engineering students, not much.
Biology, biodiversity, and many other related subjects are still relevant on this side of the world. Their importance is such that now we even have the Biomuseo. We also have thousands of researchers, both of national and international origin, who have partnered with several scientific organizations for the purpose of conducting tropical biology research.
This month, the Biomuseo wants to focus on tropical diseases. Vast amount of information can be shared regarding this important topic. More than trying to summarize this in a few paragraphs, I would like to quote and recommend the bilingual magazine of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, TROPICOS, which devotes its Volume 2 - No. 1 issue to “Habitats and Health” in which useful and updated information is provided.
“First recorded in East Africa in 1947” – states the introduction on this issue – “the  [Zika] virus has traveled through Asia and the Polynesian islands across the Pacific Ocean. Between 2014 and 2016, it arrived in South and Central America, […] Zika is poised, this year, to ride a wave of summer warmth well into North America. Researchers and public health officials are racing to find out everything they can to mitigate the disease’s spread.”
“We have seen this story before” – further explains TROPICOS. “Epidemics bubble to the forefront of public consciousness with every new report of a disease outbreak. The statistics seem surreal – body counts are more akin to natural disasters, like hurricanes or earthquakes […]. We live in a fragmented world that is, paradoxically, more connected than ever before. Natural habitats are chopped up by development into little islands, losing some of their natural ability to dilute epidemics, while roads, ships and planes make it possible for people to island-hop with ease. We always carry excess baggage, whether or not we notice the viruses hitching rides in our blood.”
The outstanding efforts of researchers like Findlay, Gorgas and Zetek seem to be a thing from the past. Today, new public health issues emerge in tropical regions and scientists are continually learning about its reality, within the context of this ever-changing modern world. TROPICOS explains how healthy habitats have the power of lessening the impact of pathogen organisms. “In an undisturbed habitat the high diversity of species keeps virus prevalence down, a very valuable ecosystem service to humans,” states Marco Tschapka, professor from the Ulm University, Germany, and co-researcher on a project in Panama. He emphasizes that the degradation of ecosystems pose a risk to the health of human beings, an important fact that we need to keep in mind.
Dr. José Loaiza, from the Institute for Scientific Research and High Technology Services of Panama  (INDICASAT-AIP), has studied disease-transmitting mosquitoes (malaria, yellow fever, encephalitis, and others), and one of his conclusions was similar to those highlighted above: “The abundance of disease-transmitting mosquitoes increases as you go from pristine forests to places that have been disrupted.”
We are not just talking about diseases affecting human beings: “Since the first Caribbean corals were diagnosed with white band disease four decades ago,” – quoting TROPICOS once more – “it has wiped out 95 percent of the Caribbean’s most common reef-building corals. Scientists still do not know exactly what causes the blight afflicting elkhorn and staghorn corals –which form a backbone for smaller corals, sponges and other reef-dwelling organisms….”
Dr. Bill Wcislo, who reminds me more of John Lennon than of William Gorgas, studies invertebrates living in societies. Ants and leaf-cutter ants are among his favorites. It is important to note that today we know more about these organisms, and about how they organize themselves with the purpose of successfully battling tropical diseases that lurk their underground colonies. In case you are wondering what does the biology of leaf-cutter ants have to do with human public health, let me tell you that it indeed does. We could greatly benefit from studying strategies that they have applied to keep their communities healthy. By way of example of Bill’s enthusiasm, he finishes his article for TROPICOS with this thought: “Are we sluggards (as Solomon thought) or do we suffer from hubris (as the ancient Greeks thought)? Are we unwilling or unable to look to ants for inspiration to get beyond sterile debates, and simply get the job done of learning to care for all members of society?”
Please click here to check out TROPICOS magazine: