by Jenny Gerow
Linking health, environment
By Fariss Samarrai
Wilder walks two paths, keeping each close enough to converge.
Wilder is a recent U.Va. Medical School graduate who also has
a bachelors degree in environmental sciences. Recently she
returned from eight months in South Africa, conducting a study
that merges environmental studies with health.
physicians think about the effects of the environment on peoples
health, and some environmental scientists see doctors in a negative
light, Wilder said. I hope to see more communication
between the two groups.
pilot study in South Africa is designed to do exactly that.
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 Africas 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
work in Africa was funded partly by a scholars 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.
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 Wilders
co-mentor. Her study is a fantastic bridge between these
two not unrelated fields.
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
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.
interested in public health, she said. I will always
look for ways to connect my interest in the environment with health.