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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Small grants fund big goals

Combined, their grants don’t even add up to $20,000. But two UA professors will use every dollar to improve public health at home and abroad.

Malaria kills about 34,000 children under age 5 in Kenya every year and is a leading cause of death in the country, according to USAID/Kenya, an independent federal government agency that supports economic growth, global health and democracy in Kenya. The government provides citizens with bed nets to protect them from mosquitoes carrying malaria. But for some reason, people aren’t using them.

Kacey C. Ernst, an assistant professor in the Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, will use her seed grant to study net misuse in Western Kenya. The UA’s Faculty Seed Grants Program provides short-term support to jumpstart projects that will develop into major proposals.

Past studies show many people are not sleeping under their bed nets. Underestimating malaria’s severity and viewing the net as a nuisance could be reasons for it, Ernst said. Her team will gather information from focus groups. That data will contribute to making and distributing surveys to a larger segment of the population.

Ernst, who has worked in Kenya intermittently for 11 years, won’t head to the African country for the study, since it would cost half her budget to travel there. Ernst will supervise from a distance and analyze the data. Her $8,823 grant will be spent through her collaborators in Kenya.

People facing logistical issues, like where and how to hang their net, will be easy to help. Working with people that don’t see the importance of using a bed net is the real challenge.

“I’ve encountered people that say, ‘Malaria happens and that’s just a part of life,’” Ernst said. “Behavior change is incredibly difficult to achieve, our strategy will be working with the community. We’ll try to develop a comprehensive strategy that will help address most, if not all the concerns.”

Kelly Reynolds, an associate professor of environmental health sciences in the College of Public Health, is developing a device to detect drinking water viruses in real time.

The tool is the size of a briefcase. The goal is to morph it into a handheld monitor that can measure the water’s safety with a probe. Miniaturizing methodologies that already exist will decrease supply costs and improve portability.

Potentially, anyone from a soldier in a foreign country to a person checking his or her pool water could use the device.

“The real question will be, can we get the sensitivity of the system down to a level that we need to have to protect the public health?” Reynolds asked. “We want to be able to detect one virus in a thousand liters of water.”

Norovirus is the top cause of waterborne outbreaks. It spreads via fecal to oral transmission and eventually makes its way into our food and water, Reynolds said.

“We’re in this continuous cycle of Norovirus contamination of our environment. A lot of people in the U.S. and around the world are drinking untreated water,” Reynolds said. “The water can look clean, but there might be things in there that you didn’t expect. And that’s what our system is designed to detect.”

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