Worm tales: One scientist’s inspiration to turn tropical diseases into ‘stories told by a past generation’”

By:  Jessica Taaffe

Guest Blogger,  Jessica Taaffe discusses the importance of the biomedical community’s contributions to improving health worldwide.

We all grow up with stories – stories that uniquely distinguish us, and ultimately shape our understanding of whom we are and whom we want to be.  In my case, this couldn’t be truer.

My mother grew up in Paraguay, and many of her stories reveal the happy simplicity of her childhood, despite growing up in a “developing” country.  Her stories include running around barefoot and half-naked through the neighborhood and playing marbles with her siblings and neighbors.  Although seemingly traumatic, my mother’s mischievous nature and good humor is revealed each time she laughs through describing repeat clashes with a tarantula (why she didn’t learn the first time that intentionally harassing the spider by sticking her finger into its nest was a bad idea is beyond me!).

Though not all memories are as cheerful; my mother has recalled the warm garlic milk cures she and her siblings endured whenever they had “bichos” (worms), and how they had likely obtained these infections from being barefoot.  Suffice it to say, my mother was adamant about my brother and me wearing shoes when we were young, even though we grew up in the US.

I’m fortunate to have escaped this unpleasant childhood experience, yet those stories have profoundly influenced my career choices.  Those tales sparked my interest in infectious disease research, later focusing it to diseases with global impact.   Additionally, my family’s experiences have made me incredibly empathetic to the plight of so many children around the world that weren’t lucky enough to have been born free from the inevitable exposure to tropical diseases.  Thus, it’s not surprising that I currently study severe malaria disease, a risk for many children around the world.

I, like most biomedical scientists, appreciate the value of my research to global health.  Biomedical research is the foundation upon which novel therapeutics, vaccines, and diagnostics for diseases are developed.  Largely invisible to the public, this work is done behind the scene, while the public faces of global health (doctors, nurses, humanitarian and aid workers) are recognized as its champions.  The collective voice and influence of the biomedical community in global health has been weak, despite our invaluable scientific contributions to improving health worldwide.

This needs to change.  In a field so interdisciplinary, it is troublesome that more basic scientists aren’t directly interacting with the communities responsible for administering or making decisions on which biomedical interventions to implement.  It is time for the biomedical community to speak up and take part in initiatives revolving around our respective research fields.

One way the biomedical community can become more directly involved in global health is through raising awareness of the diseases on which we work. This effort is particularly crucial for those researching diseases occurring mainly outside of the US.  How many Americans are familiar with hookworm?  My mother and her siblings suffered this soil-transmitted parasitic infection – there’s even an educational Guaraní song about it.  How many people are aware that dengue is not only increasingly becoming a major health concern in Paraguay, but has also caused sporadic outbreaks in Florida and Texas?  Most people have heard of malaria, but do they realize that 1.2 million people, mostly children, died from this disease in 2010?

Finding novel cures for diseases can only happen with continued funding of biomedical research, and if the general public, including its leaders, support this continued investment.  Biomedical scientists should share the responsibility of bringing attention to the diseases they research with other public/global health professionals.  It is imperative these scientists become advocates for the diseases they study. This includes all biomedical scientists, yet those of us researching tropical diseases should especially be involved in these activities.

Raising awareness is an important way that scientists can publicly contribute to global health initiatives, including disease eradication.  My mother’s stories familiarized me with tropical diseases earlier than most other Americans learn about them, if they ever do.   But that’s all they are to me – stories.  For many children worldwide, they are reality.  Like many diseases that have been eradicated or controlled through biomedical science (smallpox, polio, measles), I would love to see many tropical diseases become just like them – stories told by a past generation.

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Jessica Taaffe is a postdoctoral fellow researching severe malaria immunopathogenesis at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  She is also Founder of Scientists for Global Health (SciGlo), a community of biomedical scientists committed to promoting the direct role of biomedical research and its PhD scientists in global health.  This essay expresses the personal opinions and experiences of the author, and do not reflect official government policies or opinions.

 

 

 

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