Colombian native Dr. Carlos Espinal knows the value of collaboration firsthand. As the director of FIU’s Global Health Consortium, which for years has coordinated national and international health initiatives among dozens of partners, he understands the critical nature of the work. Beyond COVID-19, he says, vaccine-preventable illnesses such as whooping cough, meningococcal disease and others pose dangers that respect no borders and demand to be addressed widely.
“These diseases travel with people,” Espinal stresses, so supporting countries with limited resources benefits everyone.
Now FIU has made a move to go even further. By bringing together health researchers from two continents, the hope is to revolutionize preventive measures and treatments for millions, with a special concentration on new areas of study such as those related to the environment and climate change. The newly created World Center Colombia aims to accelerate much-needed investigations in the interest of improved global health.
TACKLING CORONAVIRUS AND SO MUCH MORE
Throughout the ongoing global health crisis, FIU has taken a lead in gathering experts to effectively disseminate information and foster meaningful discussions among the broadest audience of stakeholders. In December of 2021, the university partnered with the Society of Colombian Pediatrics to host an in-person conference in Cartagena. Global health and medical experts, university researchers and government officials convened to share best practices and develop recommendations to boost vaccine coverage in low-and middle-income countries.
That followed three virtual conferences over the previous 18 months that saw the participation of thousands who listened to leaders from the Pan American Health Organization, the World Health Organization and other groups exchange strategies to manage complex challenges around the coronavirus. (Presentations were made in English with simultaneous translation into Spanish.)
Such concentrated activity during the pandemic comes after years of cooperative research between FIU and scientists in Latin America and the Caribbean on a variety of critical health-related areas. Of particular interest have been various scientific investigations related to environmental pollutants’ impact on human well-being.
One that is nearing conclusion is a $3 million project begun in 2019 with the University of Córdoba to evaluate contamination levels of the 400 mile-long Atrato River and the consequence on the surrounding populations. Results from the study, funded by the Colombian government, are forthcoming.
A second project, under the direction of renowned neurotoxicologist Tomás R. Guilarte, dean of the Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work, has researchers from FIU and in Colombia studying how to counter the effects of lead poisoning among young victims.
”There are estimates that up to 40 percent of the world’s children have learning problems due to lead exposure,” says Guilarte, a celebrated pioneer of research on the subject. “In partnership with Colombian researchers, we are poised to begin work on the development of a simple, effective and safe therapy for such children.”
Later this year, in conjunction with researchers from the University of Cartagena, FIU’s Rajiv Chowdhury aims to begin a new study of the public health impacts of climate change on a coastal population. “They are highly vulnerable for things like saltwater intrusion into their drinking water and rise in environmental air and toxic metals pollutants, each of which has been shown to increase people’s risk of cardiac and neurological conditions,” Chowdhury explains. He will also examine whether a change in climate and environmental factors over time increases the risk of worsening major global health challenges such as antimicrobial resistance.
“We have the right setting, and now we have the right partners,” Chowdhury says of the community of scholars invested in the work.
BRINGING STUDENTS ALONG
Likewise, cooperative efforts in fields such as dietetics and nutrition are taking off. Cristina Palacios, an FIU professor who has worked extensively with the World Health Organization, recently traveled to Colombia to meet her counterparts as well as those in the community with a stake in improving health outcomes around obesity. She plans to build upon a study she previously published that evaluated obesity prevention programs across 17 Latin American countries.
Working aside Palacios is FIU doctoral student Gabriela Proaño, as well as students and a research director from the University of the Andes. Collectively, the group has access to vast expertise and resources, including data previously unknown to Palacios.
“I feel like we have different pieces of the puzzle,” Palacios says of the expanded team on which she can now rely. “They are really helping put everything together. It will help us understand the overall picture.”
Graduate student Proaño will use the experience as the basis for her dissertation, and she and Palacios will share their study of effective strategies as well as recommendations with government organizations to inform future nutrition programs.
“Any research, especially something that’s global, needs collaboration with people on the ground,” Proaño says. “The team in Colombia adds such a richness of information and value.”
JUST GETTING STARTED
And therein lies the point of the World Center, concludes Chowdhury, the researcher who is also charged with designing FIU’s global health academic curriculum and cultivating additional global health scientific projects among FIU’s research-focused faculty.
What began years ago as a steady trickle of international engagement over shared interests will soon turn into a flood, he predicts as he speaks of the goals to which the university is committed: “How do we maximize opportunities and add new dimensions as a team so that there is a constant exchange of expertise between students and faculty?” “How do we co-design creative programs where we are setting up sustainable research projects?”
And people in Colombia are just as excited.
“Working across borders and finding new ways to improve and save lives means the world to us,” says Luis Jorge Hernandez, director of research and associate professor of the School of Medicine at the University of the Andes. “What greater good than to know we had a hand in delaying diseases or safeguarding the health of millions of people.”