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WKU professor, students work with CDC scientists on parasitic worm project

Dr. Cheryl Davis, a University Distinguished Professor in WKU’s Department of Biology, and eight WKU students have collaborated with a team of scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), led by Dr. Dana Woodhall, to conduct a survey of soil-transmitted helminth (parasitic worm) infection in Kentucky.

Human infection with round worms, thread worms, whip worms and hookworms was still common in the 1980s in the southern Appalachian region. Although the prevalence of these infections has decreased from levels observed in the early part of the 1900s, it is unclear if these infections continue to be transmitted among those people living in Appalachia or throughout the southern United States. Because conditions in these regions may still support endemic transmission, and because these diseases cause significant morbidity among those people infected, Dr. Davis and investigators from the CDC have set out to determine if disease transmission is still occurring.

“It is a very common assumption that human parasitic helminth infection is no longer a public health issue in the U.S.,” Dr. Davis said. “We believe that public health officials, health care workers, parasitologists, and the general public will be very interested in the results of this project.”

Dr. Davis said she was proud of the role that the WKU students have played in this important project.

“The students were all on site and ready to go to work setting up parasite testing stations before dawn each morning,” she said. “They worked with energy, enthusiasm and self-confidence. In addition, having the opportunity to work alongside Dr. Woodhall and her colleagues from the CDC was a unique and meaningful experience for all of these students.”

Dr. Woodhall said: “Although we know Strongyloides and soil-transmitted helminthes were present in the Appalachia region of the United States as late as the 1980s, no recent research has been conducted to see if these parasitic diseases are still present in the local population.  This has significant public health implications as these diseases can cause gastrointestinal problems, anemia and impaired growth.  We felt that it was important to determine if disease transmission is ongoing because then we can educate people on ways to avoid becoming infected, such as not walking around barefoot, and if people are already infected we can let them know that treatment is available.  If we identify that these diseases are still present in Kentucky today, it may lead us to conduct further research in other areas to determine the extent of the problem.”

Dr. Woodhall said they would not have been able to complete the study without the help of Dr. Davis and her students.  “We really appreciate all the time and effort they put in and look forward to collaborating with them on future projects,” she said.

Mackenzie Perkins of Hopkinsville, a recent graduate from the Department of Biology who is beginning a Masters in Public Health degree, said: “The project was ideal for me, as I am interested in Public Health and clinical medicine. The patients truly appreciated the project. The Greenup community supported the research by encouraging people to come and give samples even if they were not receiving medical services from RAM (Remote Area Medical®).”

Biology/Pre Med student Zachariah Claytor of Lexington said: “During my time in both locations, I strongly felt that the results of such a project would be of great benefit to the people of the region. The ability to ascertain the prevalence of these organisms in a population allows for better treatment and a subsequent decrease in morbidity. As an aspiring physician, I felt very fortunate to have participated in both of these events. I had a great time, and I am very glad to have played a small part in their success.”

Other students participating were Ryan “Luke” Sturgill, Brock Vervilles, Tara Holaday and Kayla Pittman, all of Bowling Green; Caylee Duncan of Dixon; and Gillian Jones of Springville, N.Y.

The CDC, in partnership with Remote Area Medical® (RAM), deployed parasite testing stations in conjunction with health clinics held in Harlan and Greenup Counties of Kentucky.  RAM Kentucky is an official Affiliate of Remote Area Medical® and oversees all RAM events in Kentucky. Dr. Davis and WKU student volunteers traveled to Harlan and Greenup counties to participate in the collaborative project. The results of the project will be made available to public health agencies in the area upon completion. Participants who test positive will be contacted and treated.

For more information about this study or about the WKU Biology Department’s partnership with the CDC, contact Dr. Davis at (270) 745-6524 or cheryl.davis@wku.edu.

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