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June 18, 2018

Increasing knowledge of tropical diseases in Malawi

Emerging infectious diseases such as the Zika virus and multi-drug resistant infections are reminders that infectious diseases are anything but historical footnotes.

Although some infectious diseases have been controlled or never were problems in high-income regions, some infectious diseases have remained endemic in tropical and subtropical areas. These diseases extract crushing burdens on health, education and economic sectors. As prevalent as tuberculosis, malaria and intestinal parasites are globally, few domestic medical laboratory scientists ever report positive test results for these diseases.

In 2017, MSU faculty members Frances Pouch Downes, a professor with a joint appointment in Biomedical Laboratory Diagnostics and the Division of Public Health, and Karl Seydel, an assistant professor in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, launched a study abroad program in Blantyre, Malawi, in eastern Africa.

Malawi, also known as “The Warm Heart of Africa,” was selected for several reasons: the country has a high prevalence of infectious diseases, it’s an English-speaking country, security is good and MSU researcher Terri Taylor has been active there for more than 30 years.

MSU medical students have long had the opportunity to travel to Blantyre for a tropical disease course, but in 2017, the first undergraduate study abroad venture took place. This trip had 11 students participating, including six BLD majors and five other students representing majors in biochemistry and molecular biology, human biology, microbiology and molecular genetics, and neuroscience.

The program has dual goals of increasing student knowledge of tropical diseases and developing awareness of the root causes of health disparities in global health settings. The learning uses traditional lectures by faculty and local experts, and student labs.

Lecture topics are augmented by rotations in the clinical laboratories of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in the Bridgetown District, where students observe and take part in testing in a resource-limited setting. Visits to all levels of health care, from rural health centers to private urban hospitals, demonstrate the diverse access to care.

Each student also participates in a research project in the Blantyre Malaria Project laboratory and presents their results in a poster forum. There are rigorous academic assessments throughout the program and at its conclusion, including scientific writing, presentation of peer-reviewed journal studies, lab reports and tests.

The students also volunteered weekly at the Ndirande Handicapped Center, where they played with, tutored and served food to infants and children who had recovered from cerebral malaria or other devastating infectious diseases.

This research opportunity was, in part, supported by a generous gift from Michigan State alumnus Betty Schoepke and her husband, John, to BLD to support undergraduate research.

The 2018 trip (June 3-July 1) includes six BLD majors, two microbiology and molecular genetics majors and five human biology majors.

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