Wabash Blogs Peru, Parasites & Global Health

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January 31, 2010

Off to the rainforest

I'm headed on a trip to the rainforest in about one hour, so just a few, short comments (maybe...) --

This week was another eventful one. I met with a veterinary researcher from another of the universities in Lima about potential research projects with which students might be involved. He and his group are beginning work in an interesting "dry forest" near to Lima; basically, this area is a desert except for a couple of months of the year when it receives the thick fog of moisture that can be present here. When this occurs, it greens up and one can find a multitude of organisms. The importance of this for them is that they're working with the surrounding community (there's "city" all around it) to make it a green space that is protected, and one the community can use to attract tourists, increase business, etc. The twist is that they don't really know much about the biology / ecology of the area, so there is much work to be done there.

Later I met with an interesting new friend who is a risk manager and environmental specialist with one of the largest mining companies in Peru (and the world, I think), Antamina. Their company works in Huaraz, one of the very poor areas in more central Peru. There are lots of potential opportunities for us to work with studying the parasitic / infectious disease in this mountain area, and to be able to make a real impact on the people there through education, mostly.

I'm learning that there are (at least) two Perus -- there's Lima, and then there's the rest. Of course, it's more complicated than that, but as the economy here in Lima appears to be booming, the gap between rich and poor grows. It is a major challenge for Peru.

I also met with the chief health office with US-AID, Erik Janowsky. He was very helpful in giving me a sense of the work of the US government here, but also ways of thinking about working with NGOs here in Peru. Interestingly, he's from Indiana (Notre Dame grad) and has a diverse background -- worked with Peace Corps, spent time in Uganda, ran an NGO in Ecuador.....so he has some good experience.

The last meeting I had was with a group that is beginning work with malnutrition and parasitic disease in communities all over Peru. Collaboration with them may hold great promise, as they also have strong connections within the government, in the Ministries of Education and of Health. They already have data on many, many children (size, age, levels of anemia, etc.) that would be very helpful in targeting the areas that Wabash could work, learn, and study -- both as a Global Health group/class, but also in individual research projects in biology, economics, and political science, for instance.

In about one hour I leave for the Peruvian Amazon, so the next post might not be until next weekend. I hope to work in two spots there to continue to investigate another part of the country and the possible locations students might study and do research. I hope to have some great pictures and stories of this next adventure, so stay tuned.....

January 27, 2010

On the lighter side....

Just a quick post with pictures of some of the other things we've been doing in Peru.

On Tuesday mornings my family and I have the privilege of helping at an orphan home here in Lima; it's a home for teenage moms (some as young as 12 or 13) and their babies. We've had a relationship with this place for the last 3 years or so, through work we do with our church in Lafayette. We help with various teaching projects and generally hang out and build relationship / community with the girls. They're awesome -- brave, intelligent, and responsible even though they've been thrust into situations they would not have chosen. Anyway, it's a joy for us.

On the weekends we try to get out and about. We've been to the beach, an archeological site (Huaca Pucllana, a pre-Colombian pyramid site in the middle of a neighborhood in Lima), the Indian market and Parque de la Reserva with (reportedly) the biggest water fountain park in the world. Check out the pics.

Oh....and in case you're not totally worn out on blogs, feel free to check out the one we're keeping as a family; it has more information on these fun sites as well as more of the day-to-day for us. (Truth be told, my wife Suzanne keeps on top of it for the most part, but I chime in every once in awhile....) The address is http://thewetzelsgotoperu.blogspot.com/









Fine here, but tough times in the mountains

As you may have seen in the news, the mountains in the southeastern part of Peru -- in the Cuzco region, home of the famed Machu Picchu -- have received a great deal of rain.

Here in Lima, we're fine -- basically, it doesn't rain here so there's no flooding.

But, the rains have caused huge problems in the broader Cuzco region -- what you likely have heard is that there have been up to 2000 tourists stranded at Machu Picchi as a result of the roads and railroad being washed out.

Reports are that the Vilcanota River has increased its normal volume from 600 cubic meters per second (the normal range in rainy seasons) to 1,100 cubic meters per second. Many of the stranded tourists are being airlifted out by helicopter after struggling for a couple of days with limited food and water. The progress is slow; one of the main newspapers in Peru -- El Comercio -- is reporting that they're starting to see some "outbreaks" of flu and stomach illness among stranded tourists at Machu Picchu.

However, the more difficult situations are in the broader region where the impact of this will remain for quite some time. Statistics such as "... 10,000 affected residents and more than 2,000 collapsed houses....in Apurimac, more than 4,000 families have been affected by the rainfalls, and several sections of the Abancay-Cusco route have been literally swept away by the rivers surge....in Huancavelica, some 30 mudslides have cut four spots of the Huancayo-Huancavelica railway, blocking the transit, and the situation in Yauyo, Acoria and Anta districts is getting critical.....[near Puno] more than 6,000 hectares are flooded, as well as 10 public schools...".   The mayor of Cuzco has said that said that 80% of agricultural activity in the region has collapsed and nearly 2,000 hectares of crops [have been] lost forever. 

(if you want to read more of the stories or see pictures, check out http://search.livinginperu.com/?q=cusco&s=news&r=week  or http://elcomercio.pe/noticia/404940/turistas-varados-comienzan-enfermarse-machu-picchu)

Many of the people in this region are extremely poor; these regions include some of the highest rates of "extreme poverty" in Peru. Things will continue to worsen for them before they get better; it's estimated the region is losing between $750,000 and  $1 million per day.

It's the last thing they need.


January 24, 2010

Parasites and P.E.A


This past week was an eventful one. I've been working at the Universidad Ricardo Palma, a private university in Lima. My colleague, Jorge Cardenas, and I have been working with four students on a small research project in nearby wetland; we're looking at levels of infection in a population of coastal snails in hopes of using this system to examine larger patterns of biodiversity.

I've been very impressed with the students. Since they are currently on vacation (since it's summer here) they are basically working with us to get additional experience.

We've found two species of parasites in this snail population. I've found that doing taxonomic work in an region where relatively little information exists (or is centralized at all in something like a taxonomic key) is an interesting task.  The fun part of it is that almost no ecological data have been collected in this region beyond "we found this parasite in that host" -- thus, even simple observations represent new information (for which I'm glad!).

 We will continue to collect snails and additional data in this system. My hope is that I will be able to compare these data with samples taken from the rain forest and the mountains, although the snail species will certainly be different, of course. We hope that these data will be comparable to other systems from coastal wetlands. Importantly, this work is laying a good foundation for future student projects; this system is relatively simple and it's incredibly easy to collect snails.

...and P.E.A

Later in the week I had the opportunity to present the idea of a global health program to a group of highly motivated university students and young professionals. (This is a group I've mentioned in previous posts.) This group -- Proyectos en Accion -- works in the area of community development in an area known as Pamplona, located in the district of San Juan de Miraflores - Lima. The "workshop" in which I participated had several other presentations on projects that are beginning in this very poor zone of Lima; for example, one project involves capturing water vapor from the fog which rolls over this area (even though it doesn't rain), using that collected water to irrigate some modest crops (fruits and vegetables) which can then be used for both food for the people there as well as herbage to feed cuy (guinea pigs), which are a staple in the diet of many people in Peru. (yeah, I said guinea pig....) Waste from the cuy can be used for fertilizer for the crops....and so on.

I had a productive conversation with this group about how Wabash students could be involved in some of their ongoing projects. They are very interested in how students from the U.S. could be involved and the cultural exchange which might be possible with our students living, learning, and working with Peruvian students. One aspect that is encouraging is that this group could assist us with housing and transportation, two components  that are crucial to any kind of program we might develop here.

Finally, we continue to enjoy the supermarket music -- this week's selection included Beyonce in the Wong (a large grocery store) and a few hits from the Carpenters. It's great.

in photo (top): Nidia Perez Effio crushes a snail to examine for parasites; (bottom): a larval parasite, complete with another larval stage inside of its body.


January 18, 2010

Hosts and Parasites

One of the ways that ways I have thought about "Global Health" is from the perspective of the "health of the globe" -- i.e., what host-parasite relationships can tell us about ecology and the environment. One of the ecological systems that is of interest is to look at some of the parasites which infect snails in different habitats, since their complex life cycles can offer a relatively comprehensive snapshot of various levels of the foodwebs which exist in ecosystems. (There are some good reasons for this that I'll "blackbox" here...) 

Today I had the opportunity to begin working at a coastal wetland on the southern side of Lima. For me, it was an old and a new experience all at the same time. 'Old' because in many ways, nearly all wetlands have the same feel and the same look, even if there are slightly different species involved. There are always similar aquatic relationships, decomposition, habitats, etc. In this case, the 'new' was the fact that this wetland suffers what seems to be significant levels of contamination -- at least based on some of the odors. It is a protected zone and connected to a nice beach, but its proximity to some relatively poor areas of Lima suggest that it receives some pretty nasty run-off, to say the least.



 I have had the great benefit of collaborating with Jorge Cardenas, a colleague of mine from Lima. He has been extremely gracious in helping me to make contacts and any number of other details for the last several months. In addition, today I was grateful for the help of three undergraduate students from the Universidad Ricardo Palma, where I will be able to do some lab work. These young women had had parasitology and were very well-prepared to participate in this research project, one that could easily assimilate students from Wabash, as well.

We collected snails for a couple of hours in the hot haze that seems to surround Lima nearly all the time. Even though we did not encounter any real trouble, we were "encouraged" to leave by some local security guards from a nearby, gated community. (We all know how tough and dangerous that snail work can be....) After returning to the university via another taxi, snails were distributed into jars and will await examination on Wednesday.


January 16, 2010

Making contacts

As I've been working on this project in Global Health, one of the most interesting aspects to me has been the number of connections that is important for something like this. I understand that science in general, and multi-disciplinary projects in particular, are necessarily collaborative efforts. That said, until I began working on this project I hadn't truly appreciated how important, and gratifying, these kinds of connections can be given that my own research work has been somewhat individualized outside of work with my students. But in a country like Peru, this project will need to depend on a variety of groups. I have been impressed and pleased with the different groups of people that are interested in our work and who have a desire to bring education and assistance to folks who live in poor zones in this country. Moreover, the level of commitment among many interested students and non-governmental groups is inspiring.

This past week I met with a group of young professionals and students from several of the universities here. Whereas the students come from different disciplines they all have a commitment to work in the area of community development in some of the poorest sections of Lima. In about two months they will begin work in Pamplona Alta, an area of extreme poverty I've mentioned in previous posts and an area where I would like to pursue some parasitic disease and other "global health" projects with Wabash students. One possibility for this is that a group of students would be able to step into work that is already ongoing in Lima, in areas where relationships and in-roads have already been made in these communities. Possible projects might include sampling for infections, producing / disseminating / explaining educational materials on various diseases which are prevalent in these areas, or learning from physicians and other community workers about the health issues in these zones. It would be eye-opening to say the least. Tomorrow I begin some wetland work with some of these students and will get to build on this contact.

I made a second, and entirely unexpected, contact last week that may prove to be invaluable for work that I hope to do around the city of Huaraz, located in the Andean zone in west-central Peru. We met an expat family at a church my family and I were checking out and spent several hours talking with them about life in Peru, community development work, etc. As it turned out, "the dad" is an environmental specialist who works for one of the big mining companies in Peru. (Copper, gold, and zinc are some of the major exports for Peru and account for a significant portion of the economy.) He also has many contacts in Huaraz, one of the Andean zone cities that has significant problems with parasitic disease, including an NGO involved with community development work such as education, water sanitation, land issues and disease prevention. I plan to travel to Huaraz in early February (after a week in the Peruvian Amazon) to investigate the kinds of projects in which students might be involved and, importantly, most effective over the long-term. For me, sustainability is a difficult but very important consideration with any kind of program or experience. Particularly in poor communities such as occur in many mountain areas, people have been burned before by "flash-in-the-pan" initiatives. Thinking through the role of a liberal arts institution in such a situation will require some time and wisdom, but the potential for significant impact is high.

Monday I'll be visiting a coastal wetland to start some ecological work, so look for a new post in the next few days on that experience. In the meantime below are a couple of pictures from the local beach. While they're not shown, I couldn't help but run down some of the local invertebrates here: some old hunks of coral, urchins, isopods, crabs, chitons and snails!


In photo, top: Suzanne & Eric Wetzel. Below left: Cobblestone beach. Below right: View of the cliffs below Miraflores, Lima; note the paragliders in the sky - these folks take off from one of the local parks by just jumping off the top of the cliff!


January 13, 2010

Estoy aprendiendo....

"I am learning..."

I'm learning that I'll probably pay the gringo-price in a taxi for quite some time even though I've enjoyed some small "victories" in haggling the price for a taxi (in spanish). A sidelight -- taxis must make up at least 30% of the cars on the roads in Lima; it's ridiculously easy to get one although they have their share of hazards.

I'm learning that I'm also paying the price as I work to learn spanish! As part of my longer-term efforts here I'm investing some time in some intensive study at a local language school (with thanks to the GLCA for support). I'm in the middle of my first week -- it's fun and exhausting, but I know it will pay dividends down the road. In the meantime, at least I know I'm providing some amusement for a couple of Peruvian instructors.... and I think my kids are enjoying the fact that I have more homework than they do.

On Monday I'll begin some parasitology fieldwork in a nearby coastal wetland. In addition to doing some research here in Peru, this work will help me sort out some projects on which students from Wabash and Peru might be able to work / collaborate. There are numerous opportunities here for parasitology / ecology research and ones that have great potential to contribute truly new information to the field, particularly given that very little ecological parasitology has been done here. This is exciting because parasite-host systems are able to shed light on the strength/connectedness of their ecosystems -- "health of the globe" if you will. Of course, another benefit to this work is that it will involve a group of dedicated students from Universidad Ricardo Palma (URP) -- students who are interested in helping with disease work in poor communities of Lima. I will be working out of the Natural History Museum associated with URP and will teach a 2-day minicourse there in February.

More on the growing list of contacts later....

January 10, 2010

Getting Settled, Getting Started

Well, we're here! Having arrived in Peru late Wednesday night we've spent the last few days getting settled into our apartment in Miraflores, a nice district of Lima. We're figuring out where (and how) to buy groceries, where the parks and shops are located, and how to squeeze all seven of the people in our family into one moderately-sized taxi (which is not too difficult given the somewhat "relaxed" traffic laws). We're enjoying some of the cultural quirks we've experienced, as well (actually our favorite thus far has been hearing "Ladies' Night" by Kool and the Gang playing in the grocery store -- go figure).

Lima is a city of about 9 million people. It rests along the western coast of South America; even though it is next to the Pacific Ocean, it actually sits in a strip of desert which characterizes much of the land west of the Andes. By definition, it doesn't rain much. It's amazing the impact of just a small amount of precipitation, though. Two days ago we awoke to what we would call a heavy mist -- a very light rain. The impact of this in some of the poor zones surrounding Lima was profound -- because many folks live on what amount to foothills of rock and dusty soil, there was flooding and areas in which entire hillsides gave way, obviously causing a great deal of damage to homes. These are some of the areas which suffer from significant disease problems, as well.  The burden of poverty is multi-faceted.