Three MPH Epidemiology students from the University of North Texas Health Science Center have recently returned from Uganda, where they worked with the international organization Veterinarians Without Borders to add a first-time public health perspective to veterinary efforts of assistance.
Along with Dr. Katherine Fogelberg, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and a veterinarian, Ms. Conner Carlsen, Ms. Jordan Killion and Ms. Haylea Stuteville joined with the University of Georgia, University of California-Davis and Makerere University-Uganda in this new public health practice opportunity.
The students wanted to study firsthand the connections between diseases in animals and diseases in people, with a focus on tuberculosis, brucellosis and African sleeping sickness as some of the most common infections passed from livestock to individuals in some third-world countries.
“It was inspiring to work on the ‘people’ side of zoonotic disease issues,” Ms. Carlsen said. “This is where public health and veterinary medicine come together, because so many illnesses in cows, sheep, goats and other animals can be passed on to people, making testing, education and preventive efforts so critical in remote areas like those we visited.”
Students traveled hours to rural villages by car, visiting house-by-house with translators to inform communities about free testing services, then set up outdoor lab stations in the middle of challenging conditions where wind, dust, temperature, insects and weather were all variables that could have an impact.
“We learned to be flexible; it was all about adapting to the environment and the local culture. Sometimes the heat reached 102 degrees. Sometimes the generator went out and we lost power to the microscopes and equipment. Sometimes we worked from the car. We were able to see firsthand what we had only read about or covered before in class,” Ms. Stuteville said.
“So many people wanted to be tested,” she said. “There were households where we walked in and found 30 to 40 people waiting, whether or not they were from the same family. It was complicated, because we needed accurate residence data in order to report the results back after the tests had been analyzed.”
The group also visited a local prison to test jailers involved with livestock through work release programs, prison staff and their families, and villagers near the border of South Sudan, where a large refugee population resides.
Next steps following testing will include education, which often starts in the schools.
Students learn, teach their parents about prevention, and as Ms. Killion said, “can become the generation that makes change.”
As the partnership continues, two other North Texas public health professors and several additional students will be picking up where this group started, taking trips of their own over the spring and summer months.