Stopping the Outbreak

Uriel Kitron uses GIS technology to help control the spread of disease

By Dana Sand 14C

Uriel Kitron

Uriel Kitron (center) has created a research niche for himself studying infectious diseases and the impact of human movement on the ecology of diseases.

Courtesy of Uriel Kitron

Uriel Kitron has come a long way since his undergraduate degree in ecology.

“When I finished my PhD, I pretty much knew I would be interested not just in theoretical modeling of disease, but in a combination of the basic and the light research, specifically the interface of the ecology of animal and human disease,” says Kitron, who has become increasingly interested in and committed to global health issues.

Now chair of the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory, Kitron says his main contribution has been his approach of using math and geographic information systems to guide control agencies in the health industry. In his view, this method is highly relevant to conducting such control programs effectively.

“After my PhD, I did an MPH in epidemiology at the University of Michigan and that was the first time I actually could apply the theoretical and statistical approaches I had learned in my PhD to a human disease system,” he says. “That pretty much nailed it.”

And he hasn’t looked back. Immediately after his MPH, Kitron returned to Jerusalem, where he grew up, to study malaria-transmitting mosquitos. Since then, he has held positions at a number of universities while continuing his research. With three ongoing research projects in Peru, Argentina, and Kenya and a future project in Brazil, Kitron has created a research niche for himself studying infectious diseases and the impact of human movement on the ecology of diseases.

In Peru he is conducting research on dengue fever, a mosquito-borne viral disease transmitted during the day, typically in homes. The NIH-funded study in Iquitos is led by the University of California-Davis, but also involves several groups from other universities, Peruvian collaborators, and the Naval Medical Research Unit in Peru.

“Our most important question is to understand the transmission of the virus and what determines which locations are more important for transmission, and which human host is most important for spreading the infection when they are infected,” Kitron says. “We’re looking very closely at the issue of movement—human movement and places where people spend extensive time play a role in the transmission of the virus from one place to another.”

In order to study such a complex issue, the researchers provided the people of Iquitos with a global positioning system for 15 days. Through the data gathered on the devices, Kitron is able to look at the spatial dynamic and provide statistical, geographical, and analytical expertise.

Similarly, in Argentina, Kitron and his research team are studying the ecology and the epidemiology of Chagas disease, which is transmitted by an insect called the triatomine. There, Kitron is trying to understand which sites are important for the survival of the insect that carries the disease, when people get infected, what control measures can be used, and how to use them most effectively.

“The biggest challenge has actually been how to answer a very simple question, which is where people are getting exposed to infectious disease,” says Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies, who met Kitron when he was a graduate student at the University of Buenos Aires studying Chagas disease in rural northwestern Argentina. Kitron was a collaborator on the NIH grant for Vazquez-Prokopec’s master’s degree, and the two have been working together for 13 years now. 

“It’s easy to say it might be at their neighbor’s or at their house, but to quantify that is the biggest challenge because it requires technology that we acquire,” Vazquez-Prokopec continues. “Once you have the technology, you actually have to use it analytically, and computers have limitations for processing and analyzing data.” 

The two also have been working with the minister of health in Argentina and with local communities to help them develop and apply measures that will protect them from the disease. 

Kitron says his most active research project is on the south coast of Kenya, studying several parasitic diseases— such as malaria and trypanosomiasis—in collaboration with several Kenyan institutions and Case Western Reserve University. The team works in a large number of rural villages on the coast trying to understand the distribution of disease and why some villages or houses are more likely to be at risk. 

The study in Kenya focuses on a central question: why do these diseases continue to persist, despite distribution of bed nets and drugs as well as an eight-year drought off the coast? If found, this explanation would allow Kitron and his research team to better target the tools already available or to develop new tools to reduce disease transmission. 

In addition to these three current projects, Kitron plans to begin a new study in Brazil starting in September, when he will make a trip to Salvador to write a grant proposal to study how to utilize the established health infrastructure in relation to the distribution of dengue and make the necessary accommodations for effective control measures. 

“The methods of these studies are really novel in quantifying human movement, and it can be applied to any disease, like influenza,” says Vazquez-Prokopec. 

Each year Kitron spends time in Kenya, Argentina, and Peru to do legwork in the communities and train post-docs in the field. Since coming to Emory as the chair of the Department of Environmental Studies in 2008, he also has dedicated himself to growing the department. 

“My main role was to bring [the department] to the next level, build up and strengthen the undergraduate curriculum, hire faculty to develop a strong research track, and in the future also develop the graduate program,” Kitron says. “We’re also working to increase the ties between environmental studies and other parts of Emory as well as other institutions, organizations, and government agencies in Atlanta and beyond.” 

Kitron says the department has developed a very strong research-engaged learning emphasis that will become a track to allow students to take fewer classes, instead gaining more hands-on experience with research or working in the community. The department also will be starting a track in developmental and sustainability management jointly with Goizueta Business School next year.

Dana Sand 14C is an Emory College student co-majoring in journalism and anthropology and a communications intern for the Claus M. Halle Institute for Global Learning.

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