Student guest post by Brandon Woods
A Dangerous Paradise
From jungles with jaguars to crystal blue lakes with freshwater sharks, Nicaragua is one of the most beautiful and dangerous countries in Central America. The brilliant biodiversity attracts millions of tourists each year and the looming volcanoes that pepper the landscape can be an exciting yet unsettling sight. However, in reality much of the danger in Nicaragua comes from the risk of infectious diseases. For example, if you’re planning to travel to this tropical paradise anytime soon, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that international travelers are at risk of contracting Typhoid fever, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, Leishmaniasis, malaria, dengue, rabies, and more! As a dual degree veterinary medical and public health student, I am fascinated by these infectious diseases and want to learn how they interact with the environment, people and animals. Many of the diseases that the CDC listed are called zoonotic diseases, or diseases that are transmissible between animals and humans. Other zoonotic diseases you may know include ringworm, Lyme disease, and Cat scratch disease. Whether you own a pet, like to travel, or simply enjoy spending time outdoors, you are at risk of infection because these zoonotic diseases are increasingly emerging worldwide and are becoming a serious public health threat. During the spring break of my first year of veterinary school, I traveled to Nicaragua on a mission trip and got first-hand experiences of these frightening infectious diseases.
Bed Nets and Bug Spray
Planning for this trip was time-intensive and reminded me of planning for my semester study abroad adventure to Tasmania, Australia. However, unlike my semester Down Under, this trip was coordinated through the national non-profit Christian Veterinary Mission (CVM) whose goal has been to help veterinarians serve others and live out their Christian faith for more than 30 years. Out of all the fundraising and logistics meetings we had, the meeting that stands out the most was when the Iowa State University travel nurse described the laundry list of potential pathogens we could encounter. Our team of 8 veterinary students, 3 veterinarians, and 1 pharmacist would be treating animals in a remote village called Espavel in the jungles of eastern Nicaragua. When I saw that my destination was in the middle of the red zone for malaria on the CDC map, my eyebrows escalated and my stomach dropped.
I was going to fly to an unstable, earthquake-prone country of approximately 5.7 million Spanish-speaking people where malaria was endemic. My Spanish was scarce, but my drive to serve was strong. After I heard that malaria was essentially eliminated from Nicaragua, my blood pressure dropped a few millimeters of mercury. Approximately 84% of the Nicaraguan population is at risk of contracting malaria, according to a UCLA study. However, Nicaragua has experienced a 97% decrease in reported malaria cases between 2000 and 2010. This significant decrease in prevalence was a result of Nicaragua partnering with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in 2006 which heavily implemented stronger surveillance, prevention, vector control, and treatment. Despite this progress, I learned from my undergraduate Lyme disease Honors project that there are always numerous challenges to completely eliminate vector-borne diseases like malaria. For instance, controlling mosquito breeding populations is particularly vexing due to the complex ecology of the parasite life-cycle. In addition, you may have heard about the controversy surrounding toxic pesticides like DDT. My colleagues and I were fortunate for our DEET bug spray and Permethrin treated clothes and bed nets that we brought after skyping our host-country missionaries. I was also relieved that our trip in March 2013 was during the dry season and not during the September-to-January rainy season, when disease transmission is highest.
Escaping the endless hours in the frigid, formaldehyde laden anatomy lab and flying to a third-world tropical country to practice preventative medicine was slightly shocking, but totally worth it. On our first day, we drove through the littered streets of Catarina to an outdoor shelter where we set up a temporary clinic. The local children brought their pet dogs and we treated them with Ivermectin and other anti-parasitic medication. Many animals were very thin and infested with fleas and ticks. However, it was rewarding to interact with the children and walk them through a brochure that described both healthy animal care and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Then suddenly one of my colleagues was bitten by a dog! He was trying to give a rambunctious mixed-breed a pill to protect against heartworm disease and the next thing he knew, the dog bit him in the hand. He quickly washed the wound with soap and water and bandaged it. Fortunately, everyone on our veterinary team was already vaccinated for rabies prior to the trip because it’s a requirement to enter veterinary school. He also followed up with post-exposure rabies prophylaxis when he returned home.
Rabies is one of the deadliest and most notorious zoonotic diseases in the world. Rabies is endemic to Nicaragua, often occurs in poor rural communities, and the most common source of transmission is when a dog bites a human and delivers the fatal RNA virus. According to the World Health Organization, potentially any mammal can contract rabies, and common reservoirs in the USA include skunks, foxes, raccoons, and bats. Although rabies cases can be successfully treated, it still persists worldwide killing more than 55, 000 people each year. The Center for Food Security and Public Health (CFSPH) at Iowa State University is an excellent resource that provides more information on rabies and preventing zoonotic diseases. Reducing the prevalence of rabies globally requires a multinational effort and the World Rabies Day Initiative was founded solely for this mission and has already collaborated with 150 countries and vaccinated over 7.7 million dogs.
Tasting Iguana and Tackling Typhoid
It’s a good thing I like rice and beans, because that was the bread and butter of most of my meals every day. Hiking to farms builds an appetite and one day we had to traverse across a narrow blank that stretched precariously over a ravine. After we arrived, we vaccinated over 100 head of cattle for clostridium, anthrax, and Dectomax. Dectomax is an injectable drug used to control parasites like hookworms, round worms, grubs and mites. When we returned to the main village and got out of the blazing 90+ degree sun, the crispy, plantain chips with a glass of freshly squeezed tamarind juice was an irresistible snack. However, the most memorable meal of all was the morning the villagers surprised us with two 5 foot long iguanas! A few hours later, I was savoring some delicious iguana meat seasoned with local spices and vegetables. Cooking wild reptiles is foreign to us in the developed world; likewise, the way many Nicaraguans prepare their food is also different.
Sayings like, “Don’t drink the water,” or ‘Boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it,” come to mind when traveling abroad, and they couldn’t ring more true for my experience. Food-borne illnesses are another great example of how veterinary medicine and public health overlap. I’m enrolled in the dual DVM-MPH degree program at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health and learned that food-borne epidemics are a major focus of research in epidemiology. From mild cases of spoiled potato salad on romantic picnics to church dinner outbreaks from contaminated home-made ice cream, food-borne illnesses can range in their severity depending on your pre-existing health and the dose and type of microorganism ingested. One of the Nicaraguan diseases that I was vaccinated for before my trip was a food-borne illness known as Typhoid fever. Thankfully I avoided this illness; however, I couldn’t escape the wrath of Montezuma’s revenge, or traveler’s diarrhea, most commonly caused by enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli.
Typhoid fever is transmitted through contaminated food or water and is unique among food-borne pathogens because it only affects humans. In fact, some individuals can unwittingly become carriers of the bacterium and transmit the disease to others through improperly prepared food, like the infamous Typhoid Mary. This disease is caused by the bacterium Salmonella typhi, which is one of over 2,300 species of Salmonella and can be treated with antibiotics, according to the USDA. Other Salmonella species are also common among household, cold-blooded critters like turtles, frogs, iguanas, and snakes, so it’s important to always wash your hands after handling these pets. Like malaria and rabies, Typhoid fever presents challenges for eradication in developing countries where poverty limits accessibility to clean water, pasteurization, and proper sanitation and hygiene. For example, I had never taken a well-water bucket shower before, and although the murky water felt refreshing after a long days’ work, I came to more deeply appreciate the luxuries of everyday plumbing and electricity.
Collaboration is Key
An empowering lesson that continues to inspire me was when I participated in a humanitarian collaboration. Before our departure, we communicated with another mission team from an Arkansas Baptist church that would work at the same time as our Iowa State Christian veterinary mission team would work over spring break. The goal of the Arkansas team was to provide humanitarian care while the goal of the Iowa State team was to provide veterinary care. For instance, the Arkansas team brought donated shoes and eyeglasses, provided nutrition education and had a dentist and nurse that pulled teeth. On the other hand, the Iowa State team vaccinated dogs, cats, horses, cattle, and pigs, performed surgeries and provided agricultural advice to farmers. Even though the two teams set up separate clinics to work on different species, we still felt united as one team because we traveled together, ate meals together, and worshiped together.
One sunny afternoon, we asked the human dentist to come over to our animal clinic to pull a rotten tooth out of a horses’ mouth. The dentist had hardly been around horses in his life, let alone stuck his hand in one’s mouth before, but after the novelty wore off, he quickly agreed to help our team. The sedated horse was lying on its side surrounded by curious villagers and veterinary students. The dentist was nervous and the 3 inch long decayed molar kept wiggling out of his grip. Finally, he extracted the tooth and everyone was amazed and overjoyed. It’s a simple story like this that showcases the successful collaboration between veterinarians and other medical professionals that is the goal of the One Health Initiative or the new concept of interdisciplinary healthcare collaboration. In order for us to eradicate these infectious diseases and save lives, it is vital that veterinarians, physicians, dentists, and epidemiologists collaborate and communicate to find solutions.
A Future Fighting Infections
Going on this short-term veterinary mission trip put me in harm’s way, but it gave me real-life experience with infectious diseases, deepened my faith, and strengthened my clinical skills. It was bittersweet to say adios to my amigos, but I know I’ll return to that perilous paradise. I enjoyed the international fieldwork and cross-cultural partnership because it embodies the One Health Initiative that I highly esteem. From hiking in the jungle on my 23rd birthday to taste-testing iguana to teaching children about pet care and the Word of God, this trip was a remarkable adventure that has forged a new trail for me. I don’t believe it’s an impossible mission, and I am committed to pursue veterinary public health as a career and control zoonotic diseases in developing countries.
All photos courtesy and copyright Brandon Woods.