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$1.7 Million Grant Funds Battle Against Deadly Childhood Diarrhea

The University of Virginia's Center for Global Health has won a $1.7 million, five-year grant to train researchers to battle the spread of deadly diarrhea among young children in rural South Africa.

The money, from the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center, will support U.Va.’s Water and Health in Limpopo Innovations fellowship program. The program enlists postdoctoral fellows – from both the United States and southern Africa – to address the water and sanitation issues that contribute to the severe diarrhea that kills or impairs many young children in the Limpopo region in northern South Africa.

The program benefits both Limpopo, giving its disadvantaged children a fighting chance at a healthy life, and the postdoctoral fellows, equipping them with vital skills that will be of value throughout their careers, said Dr. Rebecca Dillingham, the Center for Global Health’s recently installed director.

“This new grant will allow us to help fill the pipeline of future global health leaders,” she said.

The damaging effect of early childhood diarrhea, in Limpopo and on a global scale, must not be underestimated, a U.Va. expert said.

“The reason we have this focus on diarrhea is that it happens to be the world’s biggest health problem,” said Dr. Richard L. Guerrant, the founder of the Center for Global Health. “These children’s gut infections not only stunt 8 centimeters of their growth by the time they’re 7, but knock as much as 10 IQ points off of their cognitive development. Just the gut infections in the first two years of life.”

The center’s postdoctoral fellowship program grew out of an appreciation that the problem of childhood diarrhea is expansive and complicated, transcending any one discipline. Treating a child’s symptoms does not address the sanitation and water problems that allowed the infection to occur. As such, U.Va. has taken a collaborative approach that brings together top minds in many fields, from medicine to engineering to economics and social sciences.

“We’ve worked hard to understand what are the sources of contamination in the water chain, and have used simulation modeling to best understand how the pathogens are getting to the children and other members of their family,” Dillingham said. “It has given us a lot of additional insights into ways in which we might approach the problems of the water chain, which lead to contamination of the water that’s about to go into a child’s mouth.”

The new NIH funding will further enrich the Center for Global Health’s well-established relationship with the University of Venda in South Africa. The international relationship benefits researchers from both U.Va. and southern Africa, Dillingham said, noting that the postdoctoral fellowship program will provide participants from both continents with skills and experiences both practical and more intangible.

“There are going to be hard skills that people will learn, but there will also be soft skills in terms of learning how to collaborate across cultures and across disciplines, which is sometimes even harder,” she said. “These are the kind of skills that young scientists and scholars in the humanities need to learn to work on the big problems.”

The Center for Global Health is accepting applications for the fellowship program. The program is open to untenured researchers of any nationality and of any discipline, but applications for 2013 are particularly desired from researchers in the fields of African studies or history, anthropology, demography, economics, nutrition science, psychology and sociology.

Selected postdoctoral fellows will be expected to do meaningful research, but it is not necessary to have a research project in mind to apply. Applicants should, however, demonstrate a serious commitment to the effort’s cross-disciplinary and multi-national approach to innovation in global health.

For information, visit the center’s website.

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