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Catawba Honors Students Spend Fall Semester Studying Infectious Diseases

December 12, 2014

Category: Academics, Biology, Chemistry, Events, Students

 L-R: Honors students Alicia Richards, Sara Sellers and Amber Williamson stand ready to share info from their research

Leprosy, SARS, Syphilis, Rabies, Rotavirus and Malaria were just some of the infectious diseases on the minds of Catawba College students in a biology honors class this fall. Students in Dr. Steve Coggin's "Outbreak" class who studied the history and future of infectious diseases shared their poster presentations as a final project. Their findings were revealing and bit alarming.

Alison Michell of Raleigh chose to study leprosy which she described as "definitely associated with the Bible."  But what Michell learned and did not know is that leprosy is naturally found in armadillos, with cases in the United States occurring most prevalently in Texas and California. In the world, the countries with the most cases of leprosy include Brazil and India.

Malaria was eliminated in the United States in the early 1950s due to cleaning of wetlands, DDT spraying (which was later found to be dangerous) and better prevention, but in the rest of the world, it still rages, Amber Williamson, a senior chemistrymajor from Lexington, learned. Williamson's research found the World Health Organization (WHO) estimating that in 2012 malaria caused 207 million clinical episodes and 627,000 deaths worldwide, with most cases occurring in South Africa and Southeast Asia.

outbreak-SellersRabies.jpg  Sara Sellers’ Poster Presentation on Rabies

When English major Sara Sellers of Salisbury settled on rabies as her infectious disease to study she did so, she said, because she had read, then re-read Stephen King's "Cujo."

"I'm a big animal person," Sellers explained, "and anything that will help an animal out, I'm for it."

Deaths in the U.S. from rabies, Sellers's research found, are way down to just a few per year thanks to vaccines — from 100+ deaths annually prior to the 1940s to two a year in the mid-1990s. While the virus continues to be present in carnivores and bats throughout the U.S., the U.S., Canada and Australia have the lowest worldwide risk for the disease, while Africa and Asia are global hot spots where the disease continues to flare.

And although rabies has been almost eradicated in the U.S., "we do keep an eye out for it," Sellers confided. "Every case is recorded in annual surveillance reports," with some reports tracking rabies cases back to a particular animal.

"It is haunting to know that it infects your brain," Sellers concluded after spending the semester researching rabies. She called the course "challenging" because she was not a science major and said the course required her to refresh her knowledge of biology on numerous occasions.

outbreak-Koehler-Smallpox.jpg  Chris Koehler shares his research on smallpox

Taylor Spillman of Boonville researched syphilis and learned that is caused by a bacterial infection that is sexually transmitted. The bacterium burrows into the skin at the infection site and reveals itself in its primary stage as a "painless small sore or chancre that is firm and round."  That sore heals on its own in three to six weeks and later, comes back in a stage two manifestation as a skin rash. In its stage two phase, the symptoms of syphilis can go away on their own. The latent stage of the infection can develop 10 to 30 years after the initial infection and symptoms at this stage include paralysis, blindness, dementia and damage to internal organs.

Penicillin is used to treat syphilis, Spillman learned, and "although it seems like it can be eradicated as a disease because it doesn't occur in animal and humans are the only reservoir," 12 million new cases occur globally each year. In the U.S., Washington, D.C. is a hot spot for this infection with 26.7 cases reported per 100,000 people.

outbreak-caylimena.jpg  Cayli Mena discusses Anthrax

Cayli Mena of Kannapolis selected anthrax to study because she was interested in its "bioterrorism aspect."  She also shared, "When I was younger, I was warned about eating Pixie Sticks because of the threat of anthrax."  Mena busted that urban folklore with science and learned that while anthrax is potentially deadly, there is actually a vaccine for it that comes in a five-shot series with boosters.

Sophomore Alicia Richards of Narragansett, R.I., is a math major, but her research into rotavirus showed her another career path she could take. She learned that she could work as a statistician and use her math skills to help track and model the potential for various infectious diseases to spread.

Richards noted that rotavirus generally occurs in the winter months, between December and May and approximately 90 percent of those individuals who get the virus are children. Symptoms include watery diarrhea, fever, vomiting and abdominal pain that usually lasts three to seven days. Surprisingly, Richards added, once an individual has had rotavirus, the symptoms become less severe with each reoccurrence.

Since 2006, a vaccine has been available to those as young as two months old to prevent rotavirus, but unfortunately, that vaccine is only accessible to those in 17 countries (the more affluent ones) around the world.

outbreak-declinstimson.jpg  Declin Stimson shares his research on SARS

Outbreak course instructor, Dr. Steve Coggin, said the students were able to put each infectious disease they studied into a worldwide context. "The Outbreak students took a global look at disease. It was striking that Africa and Asia continued to struggle with diseases that are very rare in the U.S.

"This class saw, in case after case, that poverty, in many parts of the world, is a major factor of disease. Poverty is a public health issue," Coggin concluded.

In addition to the aforementioned students, others in the Outbreak class and the infectious diseases they studied were Emily Auwarter of Ocean City, N.J., typhoid fever; Katie DeZego of Lexington, tetanus; McKenzie Garrison of Newton, West Nile Virus; Chelsea Hatfield of Salisbury, yellow fever; Lexi Kershaw of Winston Salem, tuberculosis; Chris Koehler of Burlington, smallpox; Alysia Plafcan of Maggie Valley, whooping cough; Declan Stimson of Gawler, Australia, SARS; and Shelby Wellmon of Salisbury, genital warts.

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