Ecologist seeks to understand how infectious diseases emerge

Disease ecologist Kathleen Alexander, associate professor of wildlife in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, began her career as a veterinarian in Botswana studying elephants, lions, wildebeests, hyenas, and wild dogs, but she soon realized she needed to factor the human community into her work.

“Wildlife is part of everyday life in Botswana,” Alexander said. “Wildlife are seen as a constant threat to property and life, complicating everything from walking to school to collecting wood. With people’s heavy dependence upon the land for food, fuel, medicine, and livestock grazing, contact with wildlife is escalating.”

She developed her philosophy of involving the human community in her research in the late 1990s while investigating a canine distemper outbreak. The disease, transmitted from domestic dogs, was devastating the region’s wild dog population. Human actions played a huge part in the wild dogs’ exposure to domestic dogs, yet the role of human behavior in the emergence of infectious disease wasn’t a fully recognized concept then, she said.


Kathleen Alexander, second from left, stands with residents of Kasane, Botswana, during household surveys of the region. Kathleen Alexander, second from left, stands with residents of Kasane, Botswana, during household surveys of the region.

Alexander has always applied a systems-biology approach, now known as “one health,” to her research to holistically understand how humans, animals, and the environment interact and allow infectious diseases to emerge. “Our actions have a rippling effect through the entire system, ultimately circling back to influence human health,” she said. “We are rapidly changing our world with little understanding of the long-term consequences.”

Alexander has studied the environmental and human-related drivers of disease transmission since then. She and her research team have some important findings in Botswana, including the discovery of a novel tuberculosis pathogen related to human tuberculosis and the revelation that humans are passing antibiotic resistance to wildlife, even in remote areas. They’ve identified brucellosis in wild buffalo and leptospirosis in mongoose, both of which are putting Botswana communities in which residents consume bushmeat at risk of serious disease.

A National Science Foundation grant enabled Alexander to investigate the links between humans and animals as they influence water quality and, in turn, how water quality affects their health. Her research focuses on the Chobe River region of northern Botswana, where she noticed residents often sicken with diarrhea two times each year and that these peaks appear to coincide with environmental changes in the region and with river flow.

Alexander has focused on developing simple and sustainable tools to understand disease in resource-poor settings where the need for information is the greatest. She and her team use a simple survey tool to collect data that identifies starting points for preventing diarrhea outbreaks, something more complex studies have failed to do.

“Diarrheal disease is a leading cause of death in children, and in HIV-plagued Botswana, it’s a significant issue for all infected people,” Alexander said. “Our findings suggest that climate change will increase the occurrence of diarrhea and its impact among vulnerable populations in Botswana and similarly affected regions.”

In addition, Alexander is leading a team to study the management and control of water-borne diseases, such as cholera, through a National Institutes of Health grant. The team is evaluating the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions that will reduce water-borne disease exposure of at-risk populations in Haiti.


Kathleen Alexander, at left, and a graduate student conduct testing and analysis in laboratory facilities. Kathleen Alexander and her graduate students collect field data in Botswana and conduct testing and analysis in laboratory facilities in Botswana and at Virginia Tech.

Alexander strives to implement sustainability in all that she does, seeking solutions that all sides can support. This attitude led her to co-found the nonprofit organization Conservation of African Resources: Animals, Communities, and Land Use (CARACAL), which paved the way for an ongoing $2.6 million grant to help rural Botswana residents develop strategies to coexist with wild animals.

CARACAL’s facility at the edge of Chobe National Park houses the only molecular and microbiological lab in the region, as well as teaching facilities to support outreach activities. In a conservation education program developed by Alexander, local children get hands-on exposure to wildlife and learn about the sustainable management of natural resources, while post-secondary students participate in elements of Alexander’s research program.

Alexander also led an initiative to assist unemployed women who are struggling with poverty and solely responsible for their households by creating a craft center at CARACAL where women receive training and support on product development and business planning.

Her goal is to give the local communities the tools they need to find and act on their own solutions to environmental challenges. For Alexander, sustainability and social justice are inextricably linked, yet sustainability comes at a cost. “We have to balance that cost,” she said, “so that humanity and ecosystems can both move forward positively.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Lynn Davis or 540-231-6157.

Multimedia: About the work

    Kathy Alexander

Kathleen Alexander, a faculty member in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, talks about her work and research in this video.

    Kathy Alexander

In 2012, Alexander participated in TedXVirginiaTech with a talk about "The Context of Action and Need."

Listen to two interviews with Alexander on the VoiceAmerica program “Our Wild World.”

U.S. ambassador attends craft center opening

    Michelle Gavin and Kathleen Alexander with other attendees at the craft center opening.

Kathleen Alexander’s work to establish a craft center to help unemployed women in northern Botswana attracted the attention of U.S. Ambassador to Botswana Michelle Gavin.

Alexander earns alumni award

Kathleen Alexander was recognized for her work with the 2013 Alumni Award of Excellence in International Outreach.

Follow online

Follow Kathleen Alexander’s work online.

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