PHHP opens public health laboratory in Haiti

Dr. Michael G. Perri, dean of the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions, welcomes Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter to the opening ceremony of the UF Public Health Laboratory in Gressier, Haiti. Photo by Dr. Andrew Kane.

The University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions has opened a public health field laboratory in Haiti that will allow UF researchers to work with colleagues at the Haiti Ministry of Public Health and Population to quickly identify and contain infectious disease outbreaks. Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, and his wife Rosalynn Carter, joined UF and Haitian partners at an opening ceremony on Nov. 8.

“The laboratory is one part of our comprehensive approach to improving public health in Haiti,” said Michael G. Perri, Ph.D., dean of the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions. “The lab also provides important opportunities for research and education collaborations with the university and Haiti’s Ministry of Public Health and Population.”

The University of Florida Public Health Laboratory is a culmination of efforts led by the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions along with non-governmental organizations FISH Ministries and the Christianville Foundation, and with supporters in the private sector, including Rotary International and the KORE Foundation. Edsel Redden, an associate for environmental and global health international development in the college’s department of environmental and global health, played a key role in bringing together non-governmental organizations to work with UF on the development of the laboratory. The U.S. Department of Defense Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center provided funding for most of the lab’s equipment.

In remarks at the lab opening ceremony, Carter congratulated the university and called on the UF and Haitian researchers to join the Carter Center’s fight to eliminate the mosquito-borne diseases malaria and lymphatic filariasis, also known as elephantiasis, a seriously disfiguring disease that affects 120 million people worldwide.

Several UF researchers are already using the resources of the public health laboratory, which is based in Gressier. J. Glenn Morris, M.D., M.P.H., director of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, and Afsar Ali, Ph.D., a research associate professor in the College of Public Health and Health Professions’ department of environmental and global health, study the epidemiology, evolution and transmission of cholera. Bernard Okech, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in the department of environmental and global health, investigates anti-malaria drug resistance and breeding habitats for mosquitoes that carry malaria and dengue fever. Andrew Kane, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department, studies aquatic pathology and toxicology.

A cholera outbreak that began in fall 2010 has killed more than 6,000 Haitians and sickened more than 473,000. The World Health Organization predicts that smaller cholera outbreaks will continue for another two to three years.

The UF researchers will work closely with Haiti’s National Public Health Laboratory, including director Paul Jacques Boncy, M.D., and chief parasitologist Alexandre Existe, M.D.

“We are very grateful to Dr. Boncy for giving us the opportunity to work and learn alongside his outstanding team,” Perri said.

The lab presents some exciting possibilities to better understand certain infectious diseases that affect Haiti, Morris told the audience.

“We very much look forward to taking advantage of these facilities to try to better understand how these diseases are transmitted,” said Morris, who recently received an NIH grant to support a five-year program to track and study cholera in the communities of Gressier and Leogane. “Because it is understanding the ways in which these diseases are transmitted that will allow us to develop better methods to keep people from getting sick.”

The UF Public Health Laboratory is one component of the college’s initiative A Better Tomorrow for Haiti.

“In partnership with local organizations FISH Ministries and the Academie Chretienne de Macombre, A Better Tomorrow for Haiti uses a school-centered, community-based approach that integrates public health, agricultural and economic best practices with faith-based education,” Perri said.

Projects include a school nutrition program that provides local children with meals containing animal-based protein. School-based family health centers and a “train the trainer” program for community-based health promotion activities are in the works.

“Collaboration is one of the most important factors in our global health approach,” said Mary Peoples-Sheps. Dr.P.H., PHHP’s senior associate dean for public health, noting UF’s partnerships with the local community. “This lab is a real hallmark of the commitment of the University of Florida and the College of Public Health and Health Professions to improving the health of the people of Haiti.”