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Linking health, environment

By Fariss Samarrai

Christine Wilder walks two paths, keeping each close enough to converge.
Wilder is a recent U.Va. Medical School graduate who also has a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences. Recently she returned from eight months in South Africa, conducting a study that merges environmental studies with health.

“Few physicians think about the effects of the environment on people’s health, and some environmental scientists see doctors in a negative light,” Wilder said. “I hope to see more communication between the two groups.”

Wilder’s pilot study in South Africa is designed to do exactly that.

Working with U.Va. environmental sciences professor Hank Shugart and Dr. Richard Guerrant, director of U.Va.’s Center for Global Health, Wilder traveled throughout Limpopo, South Africa’s northern province, for most of this year, visiting and surveying hospitals and rural medical clinics. She is looking for correlations between regional environmental change and instances of disease among local residents. She thinks she has found some.

“It appears there is an increasing rate of asthma in that region,” she said. “This may be related to several changing environmental factors, such as increased pollution, a change in housing types and more exotic plants in the area.”

By overlaying geographical information in the areas where she conducted medical surveys, Wilder discovered that asthma rates seem to be increasing in the same areas where eucalyptus, a tree native to Australia, is cultivated for timber and lumber. The exotic tree is being used to replace native trees and could affect the health of local people, she said.

“This tree produces a great deal of pollen, which may contribute to asthma,” Wilder said. “Eucalyptus also is causing an ecological disaster in the area. It requires much water and is dropping water tables in that arid region.”

Wilder also found that alien grasses and degraded soils may be linked to increasing asthma rates. This kind of information could be useful to land managers and health experts.

Wilder also conducted extensive nutrition surveys and health assessments. She found a high incidence of oral thrush among patients at rural clinics. This mouth infection is common among people with weakened immune systems and is often symptomatic of HIV infection, she said.

Wilder worked closely with students and faculty at the University of Venda who helped her gain the cooperation and trust of villagers and health providers in rural areas. She also worked and traveled with her husband Leon Herbert, an environmental scientist from the University of the Witwatersrand who works closely with U.Va. environmental researchers.

Wilder’s work in Africa was funded partly by a scholar’s award from U.Va.’s Center for Global Health. While she hopes to gain new insight about environmental effects on health from this pilot study, Wilder believes her biggest research contribution may be merging two seemingly separate areas. She is trying to develop research methods that will help future researchers build on her techniques and findings.

“Christine’s work builds on two special strengths at the University, our global health initiatives and the global change studies in environmental sciences,” said Guerrant, center director and a physician with long experience in international health care and Wilder’s co-mentor. “Her study is a fantastic bridge between these two not unrelated fields.”

U.Va. recently formed a research and education consortium with four universities in southern Africa. Members are developing interdisciplinary programs to merge environmental sciences with health and public policy.

Wilder earned her undergraduate degree in biology and geology at the University of Tennessee in 1996. She came to U.Va. in 1998, earning her medical degree last May. She will begin a psychiatric medicine residency next June.

“I’m interested in public health,” she said. “I will always look for ways to connect my interest in the environment with health.”


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