Winter 2021 Issue

by Josh Babcock | Photos by Henry Moore Jr.

Deep in the Republic of the Congo’s vast rain forests, Stephanie Seifert helped equip hammerhead bats with GPS tracking devices so she and her team could watch their every move.

A world away, in the mountains of northern Argentina’s Chaco province, Pilar Fernandez looked for life-saving resolutions to a “kissing bug” that can kill.

Both were looking for the same thing: a way to stop diseases before they spread from animals to humans.

Now the intercontinental researchers, who once found themselves at separate labs working on Lyme disease, both find themselves at the same place. The two recently joined the team at Washington State University’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health.

Giving back through research

Dr. Fernandez’ research is focused in the emerging field of eco-epidemiology, with an emphasis on zoonotic diseases, and in particular, vector-borne diseases.

A disease ecologist, Fernandez came to the United States from Argentina to attend Columbia University, where she received the prestigious Earth Institute Postdoctoral Fellowship.

While her research in the United States involves tick-borne diseases, some of her work she is most proud of occurred in the secluded village of Pampa del Indio in northern Argentina. Many of the villagers are infected with Chagas disease, a condition characterized by stroke, heart attack, and sudden death. Chagas is one of the main vector-borne diseases affecting vulnerable populations in Latin America.

“The disease is spread by what they call the ‘kissing bug,’” Fernandez said. “It’s really similar to a bed bug, but bigger.”

Kissing bugs are triatomines that feed on the blood of mammals, birds, and reptiles and can be infected with Trypanosoma cruzi, the parasite that causes Chagas disease. The bugs shed the parasite through their feces, and often infect humans during feeding when the feces are inadvertently rubbed into the bite wound, the eye, or mouth.

Fernandez was able to determine the spread of the disease was directly related to socio-economic status and proximity to the bugs, noting bugs often find their way inside poorly maintained homes through cracks and gaps in roofs and walls.

Based on the data she found, Fernandez created risk assessment maps for the entire village and distributed them to the Argentinian government.

“National universities in Argentina don’t charge tuition,” Fernandez said. “I felt strongly that I had a social responsibility to the work we do. I didn’t need to make those maps; I could have stopped after the study, but those maps were a tangible way to give back.”

The study found about 25% of the 2,000 villagers tested were infected with the disease. Infected children were treated for the disease. Adults diagnosed were treated on a case-by-case basis by local clinicians.

“In these indigenous communities, people don’t have access to health care. We diagnosed 80% of the population and brought health care workers to make sure people got treatment,” Fernandez said. “That’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

Stopping a spillover

Dr. Seifert studies how disease agents affecting both animals and humans are maintained in the host populations. More specifically, she identifies factors that contribute to spillover of these agents from animals to humans.

At her new lab—the Molecular Ecology of Zoonotic and Animal Pathogens Lab in the Allen School—Seifert studies rodent and bat-borne pathogens, including Monkeypox virus, Hantaviruses, and filoviruses.

Before coming to Pullman, she was part of a research team conducting Ebola virus surveillance in the Republic of the Congo.

That team, from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, initiated long-term studies on the role of fruit bats in the spread of the Ebola virus. The work included monitoring bat populations by equipping them with GPS tracking devices.

Seifert said examining host populations is the first step to finding solutions.

“After more than 40 years since Ebola virus was characterized, we still have not isolated Ebola virus from a wildlife reservoir, and we aren’t sure which bat species or other wildlife species maintain the virus in nature,” Seifert explained. “If we can identify the species involved in maintaining the virus in wildlife, then we can start to unravel the transmission chain from wildlife to humans and that gives us an opportunity to mitigate at those specific, high-risk  interactions between wildlife and people.”

Seifert also studied the population genetics of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus in camels and the novel coronavirus in 2020. At the root of all her work, she said she is looking to achieve the same goal: improving the human condition.