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Undergraduate works in Mali to save lives

Christine George is offering hope to Mali’s fight against mosquito-attributed diseases yellow fever and dengue. 

George, of Manassas, Va., a University Honors program student and senior majoring in biological sciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech, received an alert about the problem during a class trip to Mali. Since, she’s been working toward eradication through data and education.

   

Christine George pours water as she works in the lab Christine George pours water over mosquito larvae to separate them by size.

The class trip was intended to help students learn about research there to combat the mosquito-borne disease, malaria.  But, she says she also saw people burdened with other diseases, such as fevers of unknown origin. 

   

Christine George and team member collect mosquitoes in southern Mali Christine George (right) and a member of the research team collect mosquitoes to identify abundance, distribution, and infection status in the southern regions of Mali.

While sitting at lunch with researchers and physicians from the Malian research and Training Center at the Medical University in Mali, George asked about similar programs against mosquito-borne viruses — specifically, the Aedes mosquito.

She learned that there was none. "They said they hadn't the resources and I thought, given the expertise at Virginia Tech, I can do something," George says.

The diseases, caused by viruses carried by the Aedes mosquito, are becoming increasingly more problematic as years pass.

Yellow fever, a viral disease, is blamed for hundreds of thousands of illnesses yearly, while dengue fever has a pattern that closely mirrors that of malaria.

Research for mosquito-borne viruses in Mali — surveillance and sustainability

   

Christine George (right) and Adama Sacko aspirating mosquitos out of a trap catch bag Christine George (right) watches Adama Sacko, a scientist from Mali's Malaria Research and Training Center, aspirate mosquitos out of a trap catch bag.

In fall 2006, George was selected into an entomology study course under the guidance of professors Don Mullins and Richard Fell. Included in this two-semester class was a January trip to Mali, where she worked with researchers and physicians from the Malaria Research and Training Center at the Medical University in Bamako. 

There, George discovered that Mali did not have any research or work being done on mosquito-borne viruses. The viruses are abundant in that particular African region.

George, who had served as an undergraduate research assistant in entomology Assistant Professor Zach Adelman’s lab, says she was aware of the Vector-Borne Disease Research Group at Virginia Tech and how they might help. She presented her ideas for providing Mali with the preliminary data and education to set up a sustainable mosquito-borne virus surveillance center. Her goals are now well underway.

   

Michael Wiley in Mali collecting mosquitoes Michael Wiley collects mosquitoes in Mali.

To conduct the necessary research and pay for the trip, George raised $15,000, which was matched by $10,000 from Adelman. She returned to Mali in July 2007 to determine the high-risk areas of mosquito-borne infections and provide enough data and information for the people of Mali to apply for additional funding and support.

Entomology graduate student Michael Wiley, from Ambler, Penn., also made the trip to Mali in July. George and Wiley collected Aedes mosquitoes to test for infection. 

Malian public health authorities provided 95 samples of human blood that had possibly been infected with yellow fever, to be tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases, Dengue Branch, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Upon completion, this research is expected to tell government and non-government organizations where to focus vector control, virus surveillance, and medical assistance.

Phase I and II — pin-pointing and training

The project’s first phase has already yielded results. George has helped establish collaborative Virginia Tech-Mali working relations, provided undergraduate and graduate students with valuable training, and determined field infection levels of dengue and yellow fever.

   

Christine George (left) with Mamadou Coulibaly Christine George (left) with Mamadou Coulibaly, head of the Malaria Research and Training Center's Vector Genomics and Proteomics Lab in Mali. Coulibaly and other faculty members at the University of Bamako are collaborating on the surveillance network project.

The researchers have noted that increases in infections during September, October, and early November may not be entirely due to these months being the end of Mali’s rainy season. Instead, they now suggest that increased infections occur when the mosquito population is high. 

Crop harvesting also occurs during this period and Aedes mosquitoes thrive in the woods and rocks close to fields. Nomadic primates — known reservoirs of the diseases — also live in the region.

As George explains, “The high density of the vector, plus the presence of a virus reservoir and increased human presence, provides the perfect set up for a mosquito-borne virus outbreak.”

As research continues, the second portion of George’s plan involves training Malian scientists in molecular arbovirology. This training is being planned for and provided by at Virginia Tech faculty members in the vector-borne infectious disease research group.

More in Mali

   

Christine George giving Mali school children pens Christine George hands out pens to Mali school children during a visit.

George has taken on another project in Mali: She is working to raise money to donate 100 bikes to healthcare workers in Africa. 

  • The Kona Bicycle Company has specially designed a bike to be used for this purpose. Through the program, these AfricaBikes are delivered to African countries in order to aid the delivery of medical treatment and supplies.

George has also written a narrative about her Malian experience in July. 

Genome mapping

Developing new strategies to prevent and control yellow fever and dengue fever has become more possible with the completion of the genome sequence of Aedes aegypti mosquito by scientists from 24 institutions worldwide. 

The genome is the complete set of genetic material including genes and other segments of DNA in an organism.

Among the researchers are 

  • Zhijian (Jake) Tu, associate professor; 
  • Jinsong Zhu, assistant professor; 
  • James K Biedler, postdoctoral associate; 
  • Song Li, research specialist senior
  • Monique Royer Coy, graduate student; and 
  • Chunhong Mao, senior project associate.

Read "International team with Virginia Tech participation maps genome of dengue and yellow fever mosquito."

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