More than five million children around the world die before the age of five from infectious diseases like pneumonia, malaria and measles, and scientist John Aitchison wants to talk to journalists about his work to reverse that trend.
“We can help journalists with the significance or size of an issue and provide understanding of why a disease is hard to cure or treat,” says Aitchison, whose organization, the Center for Infectious Disease Research (CIDR) announced plans in July 2018 to merge with the Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
The new research organization brings together more than 200 researchers specializing in finding diagnostics, vaccines and treatments for HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, strep and human papilloma virus (HPV). Based on the size of grants from the National Institutes of Health, the new group’s research budget is expected to be about $145 million and will become among the largest U.S. research entities focusing on infectious diseases impacting children who live in poverty.
Though malaria and tuberculosis aren’t currently a threat for most U.S. children, they are for those under five living in countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and these diseases “are only a plane ride away” from the U.S, says Aitchison, who will be a co-leader of the new research group.
“Putting a local lens on infectious diseases is a good idea,” says Aitchison, who notes that with climate change, mosquito-borne diseases will impact a greater number of children, including those in the U.S. in coming years. With warming temperatures and global travel, mosquitoes and other insects that carry disease can come to the U.S., live, and thrive for longer periods of time.
“Disease burden will increase with [global] warming,” he says. “New populations, that haven’t been exposed to these [infectious diseases] in the past, will be exposed.”
With Zika, the U.S. population experienced its most recent brush with a mosquito-borne disease that it previously had never been exposed to in the past. The Aedes species of mosquitos carry the Zika virus and transmit the disease through its bite. If a pregnant woman is bitten by a Zika-infected mosquito, the virus can cause serious birth defects in the unborn child. In 2016, there were several thousand Zika infections in the U.S. that spread from South America to Florida and Puerto Rico. The number of Zika infections has dropped with few cases reported in 2018, but scientists think it is just a matter of time before Zika flares again.
“These diseases tend to wax and wane and then re-emerge,” says Aitchison.
Aitchison’s CIDR has conducted some research on how Zika spreads in the body, but the organization has made the most progress on developing a malaria vaccine. Malaria is a parasite transmitted to people through a mosquito bite. The pathogen develops in the liver and then destroys the body’s red blood cells. There is currently no vaccine available for humans.
CIDR has developed a vaccine that is in phase I clinical trials, and will publish results “soon,” Aitchison says. The vaccine would prevent the malaria parasite from entering the liver and multiplying. In 2016, 216 million people developed malaria worldwide and 445,000 died, according to the World Health Organization. UNICEF estimates that about 3,000 children die daily from malaria.
About 1,700 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with malaria annually, but almost all of the cases are in travelers returning from sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Another area of Aitchison’s focus is connected to antibiotic resistance to tuberculosis drugs. Tuberculosis is one of the oldest plagues of mankind and is caused by a bacteria that destroys lung tissue. It was one of the most deadly infectious diseases, until 1944, when antibiotics were discovered to treat the disease.
Tuberculosis has been making a come back, however, as antibiotic resistance has emerged. Around 10.4 million people developed tuberculosis in 2016 and 1.7 million died, says CDC. About 4 percent of new tuberculosis cases are now resistant to multiple antibiotics, according to the WHO. In the U.S., 9,272 people were diagnosed in 2016 with tuberculosis, and about 1.4 percent were resistant to multiple drugs, says the CDC.
“Antibiotic resistance with TB [tuberculosis] is a terrifying concept,” says Aitchison. “TB is transported by air borne” particles, and can be highly contagious.
His group is studying how TB develops resistance to antibiotics, and is developing additional therapies that can fight the disease.
“I think reporters can localize these global health stories by making communities aware of [growing] antibiotic resistance,” says Aitchison.
Aitchison can be reached by reporters through May Wildman at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 206-343-1543.