Professor finds that parasites infect urban poor

Public health officials largely overlook the scope of parasitic infections among poor Americans, according to research by a GW professor.

Peter J. Hotez, chair of the department of microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine at GW, said parasites are a recognized issue in Latin America, Africa and Asia, but that many individuals do not realize what a serious problem they can be for America’s poor populations.

“These diseases – specifically hookworm and schistomiasis – only occur in the setting of great poverty in rural areas of developing countries,” he said. “They are hidden, and so even though they are the most common infections, most people from the U.S. and Europe have never heard of them.”

Hookworm is a parasite that lives in its host’s small intestine and causes iron deficiency anemia and intellectual, cognitive and growth retardation, while schistomiasis can cause liver and intestinal damage from a parasitic flatworm’s infection of the host’s blood.

Hotez said he hopes to one day find a vaccine for schistomiasis and to get the support to start researching parasites in D.C.

Up to a quarter of inner-city blacks may be infected with roundworms, and tapeworms are the leading cause of seizures among Hispanics, he said.

“I’ve been interested in parasites since I was a teenager,” Hotez said. “They cause so much disease in the world and yet nobody ever thinks about them.”

Parasites are most prevalent along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Mississippi Delta and in Appalachia. Although he does study parasites in the U.S., most of Hotez’s research concentrates on neglected tropical disease infections among poor people in developing countries.

“Being at GW is great because we are in close proximity to the Pan-American Health Organization, and neighbors with the World Bank,” Hotez said. “This city gives us the opportunity to create a unique entity that does everything from basic research to developing new products to the actual policies behind them.”

He continued, “Because we have the research facilities nearby, we can develop the vaccines here in Washington and then test them in Brazil.”

One way Hotez is working to raise awareness of NTDs is by teaming up with actress Alyssa Milano and the Sabin Vaccine Institute. Milano was recently named the founding ambassador of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Disease Control, and pledged $250,000 to provide treatment to millions.

Hotez is the founding chair of a unique center for research and treatment at GW that is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and the Sabin Vaccine Institute. The GW research department of microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine is one of the only academic tropical medicine departments in the United States.

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