CNPRC Scientists Abroad: Dr. Koen Van Rompay Lectures on Vector Borne Diseases in India
CNPRC core scientist, Dr. Koen Van Rompay was recently invited by the Indian University of Kannur to give a series of lectures. He travelled the state of Kerala hosted by local scientists and educators giving lectures focused on threatening vector borne diseases. Van Rompay took the opportunity to stress the importance of educating the public to attendees ranging from government officials, scientists, educators, and local reporters.
Van Rompay’s presentations also touched on factors like global warming, globalization, deforestation, and increased travel that are allowing new viruses to spread throughout the world. He emphasized the difference between a state on high alert and the panic that can arise from false claims or “fake news”. He observed the Indian government doing their best to raise awareness in the general public and increased vigilance in medical facilities. There is ongoing construction of an entire research facility in the capital of Kerala, Trivandrum, dedicated to studying viral diseases and creating much needed vaccines for highly affected regions. Van Rompay hopes to build collaborations between the CNPRC and the future facility to spread our knowledge and procedures to other parts of the world.
While most Americans are familiar with the vector borne disease, Zika virus, following the 2016 outbreaks, India faces their own unique threats. More recently, the state of Kerala has been experiencing outbreaks of a virus called Nipah, one of which killed 17 people. Without the incredibly efficient response of the doctors and local government, the virus could have killed a lot more. The Nipah virus has a mortality rate of ~70-% and can be transmitted through bodily fluids, like droplets expelled from a cough. Because the virus is originally transmitted by fruit bat, presumably through saliva and urine, individuals are at risk by simply harvesting fruit from trees where an infected fruit bat had been eating the night before.
Vector borne diseases are a relatively new research topic for Van Rompay. Until the Zika virus outbreak in 2016 his career was focused on developing antiviral medicines to help prevent or treat HIV/AIDS infection. With a background in Veterinary medicine he utilizes a nonhuman primate model of HIV, the Simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) to provide the necessary scientific data to advance clinical trials for human patients. Similarly, the nonhuman primate model of Zika virus our researchers have developedcan advance scientific discoveries and necessary efficacy studies for new treatments that cannot be done in humans due to the nature of vector borne diseases.
How long has the Nipah virus been around?
“It was discovered about 20 years ago. They have sporadic outbreaks. Since it is in fruit bats, there is always the chance for more outbreaks. During my presentation I said, we can never really avoid that there is going to be an outbreak. But what we have to stop is that a local outbreak gets worse. We have to stop it early on.”
Unlike this field of research, international outreach is not a new to Van Rompay. Almost 20 years ago he started the nonprofit organization,Sahaya Internationalto offer support and build awareness of healthcare, education, environmental, and socio-economic grassroots programs already existing in developing countries. The nonprofit has raised an impressive 3.8 million dollars and spans from India, Kenya, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Van Rompay advices other scientists interested in international outreach not to be afraid of travelling to far and remote places. However, don’t let travel stand in your way. He emphasizes the importance of outreach within your own community and hopes scientists will continue trying to do a better job of discussing their research with the public.
While abroad Van Rompay took part in approximately three official interviews, but the news of his visit and his advice spread beyond those three reporters. Indian news outlets took the opportunity to educate the public about Nipah virus often featuring a picture of a bat in the article to stress the origin of the disease. The thorough news coverage in combination with the enthusiastic young scientists he met left Van Rompay with an optimistic impression of Indian efforts to protect their population from deadly vector borne diseases.