Science scenes: El Oro, Ecuador

Ever wonder what scientists are up to behind the scenes, when they are not consumed with crunching data, or endlessly editing papers for publication? They just may be traveling in far-flung places — not only to hunt for data, but to build relationships with the people and places they study. This is the first photo essay in a new occasional series, Science Scenes, in which we invite you to explore how EPI’s faculty and affiliate researchers work across the globe.

Cat Lippi, a PhD candidate studying under medical geographer Sadie Ryan in UF’s geography department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, recently traveled to Ecuador this summer to visit field sites for her dissertation research. Lippi works in the Quantitative Disease Ecology and Conservation Lab Group, which is led by Ryan. Her work uses spatial and statistical techniques to better understand relationships between social and ecological factors and the presence of mosquito vectors.

Much of Lippi’s research is focused in Ecuador’s El Oro province, a coastal region burdened by mosquito-borne diseases including dengue, chikungunya and Zika viruses. Lippi recently visited the communities where data is collected for her research. “Being in the field is a fantastic opportunity to contextualize my research and strengthen relationships with local collaborators in Ecuador’s Ministry of Health,” Lippi says.

In July, her travels led her to three cities in El Oro. The province is an important center of agribusiness and it produces a great deal of products including cacao and bananas (see photo, above). Particularly in the port cities, this busy trade means that a great number of people can become exposed to the mosquito vectors found on the coast. 

Ecuador is a major producer of bananas globally, and El Oro is one of the important growing regions. This was Lippi’s view, above, for many hours while driving along the coast to her field sites.

Ecuador’s coastal regions are generally low in elevation, especially compared to central portions of the country where the Andes mountains tower. Elevation increases sharply from the coast as a traveler ascends into the mountains. Two of Lippi’s study sites are situated in these moderate, transitional elevations. Pictured above is the city of Portovelo (roughly 1,000 meters above sea level), as seen from the road to the nearby city of Zaruma (roughly 1,200 meters above sea level). Although the two cities are separated by only 20 minutes of driving, their elevations differ greatly; this translates into different environmental conditions for mosquitoes.

Both Portovelo and Zaruma are mining towns, and they are culturally and economically distinct from lower elevation coastal cities. Local economies drive socioeconomic conditions that can affect disease transmission, such as housing conditions and personal expenditures on mosquito control measures. The economic differences between cities can translate into different levels of community exposure to mosquito-borne pathogens.  

The Ministerio de Salud Pública, Ecuador’s Ministry of Health, oversees vector-borne disease surveillance, community outreach and vector control activities. In addition to the mosquito-borne diseases that QDEC currently researches, the MSP also controls other local health problems such as Chagas disease, which is vectored by kissing bugs such as the one pictured in this mural, above.

The MSP in Machala delivers mosquito control services to households, including residual spraying and larvicide application. Although vector control services in the city are comprehensive, resources are nevertheless limited.

Household conditions are a considerable risk factor for mosquito exposure in coastal Ecuador. There is great variation in housing quality found throughout Machala, where housing constructed from materials such as wood and reeds permits greater access to disease carrying mosquitoes.

Visiting El Oro in person gave Lippi the opportunity to become more deeply acquainted with the people and places behind her work. She even met an Aedes aegypti mosquito in her hotel room, the vector for Zika, chikungunya and dengue viruses! Lippi and Ryan’s research into risk factors that support mosquito-borne disease transmission in the city will help their partners at the MSP efficiently plan their vector control programs — and directly improve people’s lives.

By: DeLene Beeland