Innovation Against Infection

Tufts combines scientific expertise with an understanding of social conditions to combat a waterborne scourge in Ghana
Watch a video about work that Tufts faculty and students are doing to find innovative solutions to schistosomiasis. Video: Steffan Hacker
March 14, 2016

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More than 260 million people worldwide suffer from schistosomiasis, a sometimes-fatal infection caused by a freshwater parasite that slips through the skin and into the bloodstream. Also known as snail fever, it’s a disease of poverty: Because the parasites’ eggs exit their human hosts via urine and waste, those without access to clean water and sanitation are almost guaranteed to contract schistosomiasis at some point in their lives.

And although it can be prevented and cured, the disease continues to linger and re-emerge in many parts of the world. More than 200,000 people die from schistosomiasis each year, prompting the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to call the infection the world’s most lethal, neglected tropical disease.

Other, less-dire effects of schistosomiasis include stunted growth in children. Research also has found a link between the infection and poor school performance in children in Mali and between short-term memory and reaction time in schoolchildren in Tanzania, where more than half of the African nation’s 43 million residents carry the parasite. In infected adults, schistosomiasis reduces fertility and can make it difficult to perform physical labor. Both factors contribute to declines in household income, mainly in agricultural and fishing communities where the disease is endemic.

With $250,000 in funding from the Tufts Institute for Innovation, a research team from Tufts is taking on schistosomiasis in Ghana. Faculty and students are investigating how infrastructure problems and other often-overlooked factors have made this disease so intractable. Because they're approaching this public health problem from multiple perspectives, their work eventually could become a model for controlling similar kinds of disease outbreaks in other parts of the world.

Steffan Hacker can be reached at steffan.hacker@tufts.edu.