Gates foundation grant to help UF researchers in Haiti

Man collects a water sample in Bellevue, near Gressier, Haiti.
Meer Alam collects a water sample in Bellevue, near Gressier, Haiti in July 2013. Alam is a biological scientist with UF’s College of Public Health and Health Professions, department of environmental and global health, and an affiliate of the Emerging Pathogens Institute. (Photo by Makendy Jean Luma, a Haitian partner on the research project

With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, researchers from the University of Florida will be better armed to fight cholera and malaria in Haiti. Both diseases pose serious public health threats to the population.

Kevin Bardosh, a scholar from the University of Edinburgh currently working with the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute and UF researcher Dr. Glenn Morris recently received $100,000 as part of the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations program. Grand Challenges Explorations grants are awarded to help researchers develop innovative, early-stage projects that target challenging global health issues.

“Haiti doesn’t have a strong health system, so the idea was if you can integrate you can save money and be more efficient,” says Bardosh.

Numerous programs have been put in place to help combat cholera and malaria. However, these public health efforts typically operate in disease-specific silos, potentially losing out on benefits that could be yielded from targeting multiple health threats at once.

To determine whether integrating public health efforts would be a more efficient, effective and less costly way to eradicate these diseases in Haiti, UF researchers are preparing to launch pilot studies with funding from the grant.

“The Grand Challenges program funds high-risk, high-reward ideas to provide researchers with the opportunity to try something innovative,” said Morris, director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute. “With these funds, you can run a pilot study and see if the idea will work. At the end if they like the project, then they have the option to fund it again over the next multiyear period.”

UF researchers have been involved with efforts to help Haiti for years, with a more profound focus there since the 2010 earthquake that devastated much of the region and paved the way for a cholera outbreak and other public health crises. In 2011, UF opened the UF Public Health Laboratory in Gressier, Haiti. In addition, several UF researchers specialize in the diseases that pose the biggest health threats there.

As part of the pilot studies, UF researchers will work closely with community members in two villages and one city in Haiti to determine their needs and goals. This will help researchers form the basis of their studies. At the end of the project, which will last between 12 and 18 months, the researchers will produce four models that show how public health efforts could be integrated. These models will allow researchers and funding agencies to determine whether the projects will be useful on a larger scale.

“Haiti is one of our closest neighbors,” Morris said. “We have a large Haitian-American population in Florida and a large population in our student body. Haiti has always had a unique relationship with UF and this grant further underscores our commitment to internationalization and to this special country.”