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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Iowa Researchers Watching Two Vector-borne Diseases that Can be Passed from Mother to Child

While world health leaders race to contain the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus in the Americas, researchers at the University of Iowa are reminding doctors in the United States to be on the lookout for two other vector-borne and potentially life-threatening diseases that can be passed from mother to child through the placenta.

Chagas’ disease and Leishmaniasis are parasitic diseases found in Mexico, Central America, and South America. In addition, Leishmaniasis also is found in some parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and southern Europe. Blood-sucking insects are blamed for transmitting both diseases.

[Photo: Dr. Christine Petersen]

Now that scientists know the pathogens can also be passed congenitally, global travel and migration have made people in the U.S. vulnerable. The problem is that most American doctors do not think of parasites from far away places when a sick baby arrives in their office.

That needs to change, says Dr. Christine Petersen, associate professor of epidemiology at the UI College of Public Health and corresponding author of the paper “A Mother’s Gift: Congenital Transmission of Trypanosoma and Leishmania Species,” which appeared online January 28 in PLOS Pathogens.

“Congenital transmission will be the predominant way that kids in the United States get these diseases because we don’t have the bug problem,” Dr. Petersen says. “So, you might have a child going into heart failure or with an enlarged liver and spleen, and the doctors can’t figure out what’s going on, and the child is on death’s doorstep.”

The newly published paper is a review of previous studies about Chagas’ disease and Leishmaniasis and serves as a reminder for U.S. health care workers to remember these diseases when examining sick children whose mothers have come from areas where such illnesses are more common.

The next step for UI researchers is an 18-month vaccine trial on 600 dogs, funded by the Morris Animal Foundation, a nonprofit organization that invests in science to advance animal health. But the researchers’ goal is to also prevent the spread of these diseases between animals and people.

“This is a whole new ballgame,” Dr. Petersen says. “Those who have the disease but aren’t sick yet, can we turn the tide for them? If we do find that the vaccine does make the dogs better, then the question is, ‘Does it help not passing it on to their puppies?’”

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