researchers and microscope illustration

Students bring the fight to a neglected tropical disease

June 14, 2022


Kathryn H. Jacobsen, an epidemiologist who joined the faculty at University of Richmond in fall 2021 as the William E. Cooper Distinguished University Chair, decided to go big for her first class on campus.

“I had been informed that Richmond students like to be challenged, that they're willing to take their learning in new directions,” Jacobsen said. “I decided that I was going to have the students design the syllabus for the course.”

The course was a seminar in global infectious diseases, and the students voted to focus on a group of conditions known as neglected tropical diseases, or NTDs.

“We were given the freedom to design our own project,” said Bailey Andress, a rising senior, who took the course in the fall. “The course itself was very eye-opening for me as a student.”

Andress, along with Jacobsen and the eight other students in the course, evaluated all 20 conditions that are currently on the World Health Organization’s list of prioritized NTDs and noticed one glaring omission: loiasis, more commonly known as African eye worm disease.

The drug ivermectin is used to treat two of the NTDs that are already on the WHO priority list, but it cannot be safely used by people who are infected with a lot of Loa loa worms. Andress and her classmates agreed that one of the reasons WHO should add loiasis to its NTD priority list is because control of loiasis will help the organization make progress toward eliminating two other parasitic diseases: lymphatic filariasis and river blindness.  

But that is not the only reason to add loiasis to the list. “Loiasis can damage the nervous system, kidneys, heart, and other organs, and it increases the risk of early death,” Jacobsen added, “so loiasis is an important public health concern on its own and not just because it complicates efforts to control other NTDs.”

The students spent the semester researching, formulating their argument, editing, and finally submitting the manuscript to The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal. After a few rounds of expert review, their paper was published in the journal.

“Every member of the class contributed to the research and writing of our final paper,” Andress said. “Dr. Jacobsen helped make this daunting task manageable, and I am incredibly grateful that our paper was published and will hopefully start to get loiasis more of the attention that it deserves. As an undergraduate student, I never expected the opportunity to contribute to the field of global health in this way, and I look forward to seeing how the work of our cohort will be used in the future.”