Ohio University

OHIO Students to Participate in Project to Safeguard Families from Chagas Disease in Ecuador

OHIO Students to Participate in Project to Safeguard Families from Chagas Disease in Ecuador
A group of OHIO students contributes to the construction of an anti-Chagas home in Southern Ecuador.

Grant funding from Ohio University is allowing Mario Grijalva, a faculty member at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, and Scripps College of Communication professors Benjamin Bates and Eric Williams, to work across national borders with students and researchers from various disciplines to expand and improve a program aimed at preventing the spread of Chagas disease.

Chagas is a debilitating and often fatal illness that affects approximately 6 to 7 million people worldwide. It is caused by Trypanasoma cruzi, a blood-borne protozoan parasite, spread by an insect known as the kissing bug. The disease is a significant public health concern, particularly in Latin America, but is not well known, because it disproportionately affects people in underserved communities in tropical climates of Latin America. Dr. Grijalva, working with teams of researchers and students from Ohio University and Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador (PUCE), has developed a unique approach to the prevention of this disease by working with the communities to improve housing infrastructure coupled with health promotion and income generation opportunities. This approach is embodied in a project is called Healthy Homes for Healthy Living or H3L.

An Ohio University 1804 Undergraduate Learning grant of $26,750, awarded to Grijalva, Bates and Williams, is being used to engage OHIO and PUCE students in the development of a marketing, communication, and fundraising campaign to support the expansion of the project. This award is being matched with $25,000 from PUCE. The researchers believe the H3L project could be a replicable model for the prevention of Chagas and other vector-borne diseases, which could help the international community fight diseases of poverty and achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

During fall semester, Bates has led a team of graduate students in collecting data around effective messaging with support from undergraduate students. During the spring semester, Williams will work with professors and students from three classes to develop content for use in the fundraising campaign.

“Students and faculty from Scripps College thrive on this sort of collaboration,” says Williams.  “This is what we do. We communicate. We collaborate with disciplines across the university to better tell their stories. With a story like this one, it’s easy. The story itself is fascinating. This is important work. This is the kind of work that changes lives.”

In 2009, the Healthy Living Initiative (HLI) was born under the direction of Grijalva, who has long studied Chagas disease. HLI’s aim was to find a way to achieve long-term sustainable elimination of Chagas disease in Grijalva’s native land of Ecuador.

In pursuit of this goal the Infectious and Tropical Disease Institute (ITDI) formed an alliance with the Center for International Studies (CIS) at Ohio University and the Center for Research on Health in Latin America (CISeAL), at Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador (PUCE). Starting with a blank whiteboard, graduate students and faculty investigated how similar efforts had been conducted worldwide. In 2010, they carried out the first field research to understand the challenges to Chagas elimination from the perspective of local stakeholders and the inhabitants of three rural communities in Southern Ecuador directly caught up in this intractable problem. The addition of Scripps collaborators will enrich the partnership and connect the work being done in Ecuador to new audiences.

HLI is bringing people together to build/transform the living environments that support health in communities where Chagas and other preventable illnesses too often deny people the opportunity to be healthy and pursue the things that matter most to themselves and their families. To date, the HLI has supported the reconstruction or redesign of six homes to prevent the transmission of Chagas. The project employs a design that not only prevents the colonization of kissing bugs in the household, but is also responsive to family needs, uses local materials and respects the culture and traditions of southern Ecuador.   

“This project will allow us to engage Ohio University and PUCE students in developing solutions to complex health problems,” said Grijalva, principal investigator on the project. “One of the aspects of the issue of Chagas is that it is a complex health problem that should be addressed in a multi-disciplinary way. I am excited that this project will utilize the expertise of Scripps faculty and students to build on the foundation that scientists, architects, and development practitioners have started.”

Scripps students who want to get involved in this project can apply to the Tropical Disease Research and Service Learning project in Ecuador for summer 2020. Scripps students in the field will develop multimedia projects about the project and participate in the launch of the social media campaign.