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Student’s Project Contributes to Public Health Efforts

Student’s Project Contributes to Public Health Efforts March 5, 2014
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When Vicky Egedus arrived in Costa Rica to begin ACM’s spring semester field research program in February 2013, she didn’t know much about dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease found in many tropical and subtropical areas around the world.

“It wasn’t a disease I was familiar with,” she recalled, “but I knew it was relevant to the country where I would be living, and I was excited about that.”

Vicky EgedusVicky Egedus in the Ministry of Health uniform she wore while conducting interviews for her independent project in Costa Rica.

With the guidance of her research advisor, who is an expert on dengue, Egedus took on a project to find out how effective community outreach by the national Ministry of Health has been in addressing the spread of the disease.

In the process, she not only learned a lot about dengue, she also contributed to efforts to combat the disease in Costa Rica and returned with a new outlook on the academic and career direction she wants to pursue after she graduates from Lake Forest College this spring.

Egedus’ interest in studying abroad in Costa Rica was sparked during a course she took on tropical biology and plants. “We read a book about scientists doing research in the tropics and I started envisioning myself doing the same,” she said. “I wanted this semester [on the Costa Rica Program] to be my chance to do something related to health care, either working with doctors or in a more public health sense.”

Based on her interests and goals, Program Director Chris Vaughan put her in contact with Dr. Anabelle Alfaro Obando, one of the program’s research advisors, who is a member of a group developing guidelines for managing patients with dengue for the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization. It was a good fit for Egedus, and soon she was researching the disease and its effects in Costa Rica.

Watch a video of Vicky Egedus’ presentation about her research at the 2014 ACM Student Symposium on Off-Campus Study!

Students spend the first four weeks of the program in the capital city of San José, where they work closely with their advisors to prepare the proposals for their independent research projects and study Spanish in a course that emphasizes the language skills and cultural knowledge they will need to effectively conduct research at field sites throughout Costa Rica.

“The disease itself is about 30 times more prevalent than it was 50 years ago across the globe,” Egedus said. “It’s not just in Costa Rica. Dengue is a global health concern because it’s transmitted by mosquitoes. The mosquitoes only live in areas where humans live, so with rapid urbanization, abundant travel, as well as climate changes, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get rid of the mosquito.”

Vicky Egedus with Mike McCoy (2nd from right) and members of the Ministry of Health Vector Control Team.

There’s no vaccine for dengue fever, so the best way to manage the spread of the disease is to eliminate breeding sites for the Aedes mosquito that carries it, according to Egedus. Those sites can be wherever stagnant water collects – in old tires, flower vases, garbage, and even pop bottle caps – so community education and involvement are crucial.

ACM staff in Costa Rica set up a home stay for Egedus with a family in Quebrada Ganado, a small town along the country’s Pacific coast. Alfaro accompanied her to the town and introduced her to the Ministry of Health team working there. The team, in turn, mapped out the homes she would survey and introduced her to local residents.

“I did my interviews in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, [which] has vector control workers,” she said. “They go around the whole town, door to door, and search for breeding sites. They are in charge of educating the community within their homes on all the specifics. So my goal was to see if the Ministry of Health’s education was effective.”

She adapted a questionnaire that a previous ACM program participant had developed for his project with Alfaro. Building on another student’s work “adds to the progress,” Egedus noted. “Starting something brand new, we would never have been able to bring the project as far as a number of students can in multiple semesters. I think it’s great.”

Vicky Egedus, Dr. Alfaro, Nick BohrerDr. Anabelle Alfaro advising ACM students Vicky Egedus and Nick Bohrer on their public health projects.

In all, she visited 320 homes to interview residents during her two months in Quebrada Ganado. The Spanish immersion, especially the interviews, gave a tremendous boost to her language ability. “There’s no way to develop the language skills here compared to the way you can when you’re studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country,” said Egedus, who is majoring in chemistry with a minor in Spanish. “It’s invaluable. I would say that’s the number one reason that drove me to studying abroad.”

With data in hand from the interviews, Egedus returned to San José for the program’s final month to analyze the results and write her research paper, frequently consulting with Alfaro and Mike McCoy, the Natural Sciences Research Coordinator for the program.

“I had quite a variety of questions [in the study],” she said, “so it was a process of focusing on what questions I wanted to answer and then using a statistics program to confirm the relationships that would, hopefully, be indicative and useful for the Ministry of Health and their future education efforts.”

Along with her paper, Egedus prepared a PowerPoint presentation of her findings, in Spanish, for the Costa Rican Ministry of Health to help them evaluate their communication efforts in the dengue prevention program.

Vicky Egedus and host motherVicky Egedus with her host mother in San José at the program’s farewell gathering.

Back at Lake Forest for her senior year, Egedus has been sharing the results of her research with a wider audience. In November, she presented her study at Argonne National Laboratory during the 23rd Annual Argonne Undergraduate Symposium for Science, Engineering, and Mathematics.

“It’s amazing to be able to present this information to people in Chicago who know very little about dengue,” she said. “I loved the chance to share something that became real to me while I was down there [and provide] a little different sense of progress that’s happening in Costa Rica.”

More recently, Egedus had an article based on her research accepted for publication in the September 2014 issue of The International Journal for Tropical Biology and Conservation. Her co-authors on the article are Alfaro and Dr. José Morales Ortega, head of the Ministry of Health division in the Garabito region, where Egedus carried out her study.

Looking beyond graduation this spring, Egedus credits her experience on the Costa Rica Program with helping her make more informed decisions in pursuing her goals, including medical school. “The medical programs I’m looking at are dual degree programs with public health, whether it is a master’s in public health or something else,” she said. “[Going to Costa Rica] has definitely changed my scope and view in how I’m going about the next steps.”


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