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Looking at Infectious Diseases from Biological and Public Health Perspectives

Looking at Infectious Diseases from Biological and Public Health Perspectives February 26, 2010

Colorado College biologist Phoebe Lostroh to teach course in Botswana on tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and malaria

“We’re talking about biological creatures that people encounter in their daily lives in Botswana,” said Colorado College professor Phoebe Lostroh, describing the focus of the course she’ll teach next spring as Director of the ACM Botswana: University Immersion in Southern Africa program.

Botswana is well-known for its wildlife preserves, but that’s not the type of creature she had in mind.

Lostroh, a microbiologist, was referring to Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and Plasmodium falciparum and related species.

Phoebe Lostroh with nurses

Phoebe Lostroh (center) visiting with nurses in a rural clinic in Botswana.

Photo courtesy of Phoebe Lostroh

Those organisms cause tuberculosis, AIDS, and malaria, respectively, which are the three single-agent infectious diseases that kill the most people around the globe each year, according to the World Health Organization.

“It’s pretty common for people (who live in southern Africa) to have tuberculosis or malaria or HIV/AIDS in their lifetimes, and in Botswana in particular,” Lostroh said. “Here in the U.S., there are a lot of news stories about health issues related to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and obesity, but really not so much about infectious disease, at least until the flu pandemic burst on the scene. It’s really different to think about the biology of these infectious agents in a place where you could encounter them.”

Lostroh’s longstanding interest in the connections between infectious disease and social inequality drew her to Botswana and to the ACM program. Her course on “The Biology and Public Health of Tuberculosis, HIV, and Malaria” will be required for the ACM students and open to students from the University of Botswana (UB), which hosts the program and is located in the capital city of Gaborone.

To round out the program’s curriculum, students also will study Setswana, the national language of Botswana, take an elective course taught by UB faculty, complete an independent study project supervised by Lostroh or a UB faculty member, and take field trips in Gaborone and around the country.

What is it like to live in a place where you encounter these diseases in everyday life?

Botswana has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection in Africa, although malaria is not a problem in Gaborone and most of the country. Medical safety is addressed before and during the program, and the students have access to medical facilities and clinics in Gaborone. The nation’s government has developed substantial programs to respond to public health issues such as infectious disease, which makes Botswana a particularly good site for Lostroh’s course and the program.

In her course, Lostroh will lead the students in examining the three diseases from both biological and public health perspectives, drawing on biology, medicine, psychology, sociology, economics, and political science, as well as other disciplines.

She plans to have students explore questions such as: What is it like to live in a place where you encounter these diseases in everyday life? How would you want your government or your society to try to keep you safe from either contracting them, or if you did contract them, from suffering serious consequences, including death? “I think that’s something that U.S. students don’t think about a lot,” said Lostroh.

The course will include comparative views of Botswana and the U.S., and how people living in each country experience having these infections. “One of the comparisons, of course, is that Botswana has free health care for its citizens,” she noted. “That’s one of the things we’re going to talk about.”

University of Botswana

On the University of Botswana campus.

Photo courtesy of Phoebe Lostroh

Lostroh is certainly comfortable with the interdisciplinary approach of the Botswana Program. As part of her teaching philosophy, she maintains that the best undergraduate education in biology is a B.A. earned as part of a liberal arts curriculum. “I’m all about making sure that science students are just as broadly educated as anyone else,” she said, which is the route she took as a biology major at Grinnell College, before going to Harvard University for her Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular genetics.

Although most of her courses at Colorado College are, of course, in the biology department, Lostroh also has enjoyed opportunities to teach feminist and gender studies and the college’s interdisciplinary “Freedom and Authority” course, most recently this past fall.

“I was very interested in (presenting) issues related to science and freedom and authority, and science and free will,” she said. “Infectious disease has all kinds of interesting things to think about – quarantines, for example, and immunizations – and issues related to personal freedom versus various kinds of authority, and also the group benefit versus the individual benefit and risk.”

In preparing to teach in Botswana, Lostroh highlighted the importance of including the sciences as part of the mix in interdisciplinary courses, such as her course on public health issues.

“I would argue that it would be useful if there were more people who could be conversant in both natural and social science approaches to all of the many problems provoked by, for example, HIV/AIDS,” said Lostroh. “You need to know some economics and some sociology and some anthropology and some political science, but perhaps you should add some biology in there. It might give you some insight that other people don’t have.”


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