State of Public Health conference highlights research on public health issues

Researchers in the College of Public Health and other UGA departments shared their expertise alongside public health leaders from across the state during the fifth annual State of Public Health Conference held Oct. 18 at UGA.

Dr. José Cordero, the Patel Distinguished Professor of Public Health and head of the college’s epidemiology and biostatistics department, delivered an update on the Zika in Infants and Pregnancy or ZIP study, a multi-country NIH study of pregnant women in areas hit hardest by the Zika virus.

Cordero, a principal investigator for the study, has been on the front lines of the outbreak in Puerto Rico, following study participants throughout their pregnancies.

Currently, of the 29,084 confirmed cases of Zika in Puerto Rico, 2,231—almost 10 percent—are in pregnant women. But, Cordero said, the number of cases could be as high as 150,000 and 7,000, respectively, due to the asymptomatic nature of the disease. Zika, he noted, is “like a silent epidemic.”

The disease is generally mild in healthy adults, and 80 percent of those infected show no symptoms, meaning people can readily and unknowingly transmit the virus. The great concern, however, is what happens when it infects pregnant women.

Zika can reach a developing fetus through an infected mother and cause massive destruction of brain cells, which Cordero referred to as “brain disruption syndrome.” The syndrome may cause microcephaly, a smaller than normal head, but also major developmental delays, hearing and vision defects, inability to swallow, seizures and pregnancy loss.

“These defects are only the tip of the iceberg of what’s actually been observed. As we follow more of these children over time, the more we’re going to find,” Cordero said. “We are bracing for a major epidemic of serious birth defects in the months to come.”

The first babies from the ZIP study in Puerto Rico are due next month. Cordero believes the birth cohort will provide answers to key questions related to the risk of infection in pregnant women, risk of infection to the fetus and the risk of birth defects.

The study is also trying to evaluate if risk to the fetus differs from symptomatic to asymptomatic mothers, the impacts of gestational age and environmental factors, and how long the virus remains present in body fluids.

Cordero said that addressing Zika requires an integrated public health approach that includes strong community engagement, disease and vector surveillance and vector control, but birth defect monitoring is an important missing piece of emerging disease preparedness.

“Zika is really a wake-up call; it’s a message about emerging diseases and re-emerging diseases globally,” he said. “As we speak, there are hundreds of other emerging diseases.”

Other highlights of the conference included an afternoon workshop with Carolyn Lauckner, assistant professor, and Nathan Hansen, associate professor, from the College of Public Health’s health promotion and behavior department. Their research team presented findings from the Smartphone, Health and Relationship or SHARE study, which found significant gaps in health resources for gay men in rural areas.

Elizabeth Weeks Leonard, a J. Alton Hosch Professor of Law at UGA, outlined laws that provide limited protection against health discrimination and the need to address trends of employers, insurers, corporations, courts and providers unfairly favoring healthy individuals.

This year’s conference, which was the largest to date, featured numerous keynote speakers, including Alonzo Plough, vice president for research and evaluation and chief science officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health and state health officer. Research posters from attendees representing organizations and universities across the state addressed topics ranging from tobacco use to telemedicine.

“Our speakers emphasized the need for multiple disciplines and agencies to partner for the improvement of public health,” said Marsha Davis, associate dean for outreach and engagement in the College of Public Health and conference organizer.

Originally published in the Oct. 31 2016 issue of Columns:

Posted October 31, 2016.