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Biology student Justine Sundrud carries out health project in Guatemala

Loyola University New Orleans senior biology major Justine Sundrud has a passion for public health. That’s why she teamed up with Loyola professor and Chagas disease expert Patricia Dorn, Ph.D., and New Orleans-based filmmaker Benjamin Reece of Deltree films to capture villagers in Guatemala using an innovative ecohealth approach proven to help people in the most impoverished regions stop the threat of Chagas disease. The deadly Chagas parasite infects from 7 to 8 million people in Latin America and also people in the U.S., according to Dorn’s previous research.

Sundrud will report the project’s progress and findings during Loyola’s 24th Annual Biological Sciences Undergraduate Research Symposium Friday, March 28. The symposium features seven outstanding undergraduate students presenting ground-breaking research that range from the quest to halt the progression of rheumatoid arthritis to the phenomenon of joint regeneration. Sundrud’s presentation is set for 4:30 p.m. in Louis J. Roussel Performance Hall, located in the Communications/Music Complex. The entire symposium runs from 1:15 p.m. to 5 p.m. and includes a reception following the presentations to be held in the newly renovated biology spaces on the fourth floor of Monroe Hall.

Sundrud’s presentation on the ecohealth project will showcase 10 minutes of video the team captured in El Guayabo, a small village in Guatemala, March 2-9. For the filming trip, the Loyola team joined Guatemala-based researcher Carlota Monroy, Ph.D., capturing for the first time on film step-by-step instructions for implementing the ecohealth approach.

At the Loyola symposium Sundrud will also explain the concept of ecohealth and its potential benefits—benefits she’s excited about. “Everybody has a right to health,” Sundrud said. “And I like that this project is an ecohealth approach where it’s kind of holistic.”

“In terms of interrupting Chagas transmission, we realize that we need a holistic approach. The ecohealth approach includes an understanding of the environment,” Dorn said. While most might not consider the environment when addressing the issue of deadly parasitic diseases, the environment actually plays a major role. “In fact, because there’s so much deforestation in these areas around the world, the animals that the bugs usually feed on are gone, so the bugs are hungry. Where do they go? Into the houses. So you have to think holistically.”

The three-step approach includes first spraying houses with insecticide to initially knock out the bug population, then following up with innovative ecohealth measures some scientists had previously ignored or dismissed due to cost or feasibility. Those measures include improving the houses by plastering walls, moving chickens and other animals outside (by building coops) and cementing floors that were once only dirt.

The method, developed by Monroy, and validated through her research with Dorn, was once only shared by person-to-person training performed by Monroy herself. While Monroy has traveled across the world from Central America to Thailand, Laos and beyond, she knew it was physically impossible for her to simply travel to teach the method to the thousands of people who need it most. That’s where the film comes in. It will be formatted to a DVD to share with thousands around the world. Highlighting the real-life stories of villagers from homes with rats, bugs and dirt floors in poor condition, the film will feature villagers improving their own homes and showcasing the homes after they are improved.