By Wendy Sarubbi | January 25, 2016 4:18 pm

The theme of “Neglected Tropical Diseases” at the College of Medicine’s 5th Annual Global Health conference was fueled by a medical mission trip to the Dominican Republic over the summer. “We saw many diseases that are caused by mosquitoes and other vectors causing a lot of burden on the underdeveloped countries of the world,” said second-year medical student and conference co-director John Stelzer.

Based on that experience, the college’s MedPACt (Medical Students Providing Across Continents) group brought together almost 200 participants from across Florida and as far away as Brazil to talk about tropical diseases that inflict devastation on developing countries. As part of the event, MedPACt presented a $1,300 check to END7, a non-profit group that raises money to treat the top seven tropical diseases in the world. The program is able to provide care to an individual for just 50 cents a year, meaning UCF’s donation will help 2,600 people.

Keynote speaker Dr. Maria Bottazzi, associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, works with END7 and encouraged event participants to continue using teamwork to improve health. “We cannot address global health to end these diseases unless we truly work in partnerships and integrated approaches,” she said as she detailed her lab’s work to develop a vaccine for hookworm, a parasitic infection that affects 440 million people worldwide and causes severe anemia.

She said many tropical diseases do not cause death, but debilitate victims so they cannot provide for themselves or enjoy any quality of life. “It brings up this ‘morbidity vs. mortality’ topic,” Dr. Botazzi said, explaining how deadly diseases like AIDS often get more funding and attention. “Both are devastating, and both have a place in this global health discussion.”

During the second half of the day, nursing, pharmacy, medical and public health students and faculty broke into workshops and simulations, including an outdoor mock mission hospital. There, actors played out the symptoms of diseases like roundworm. One “patient” simulated elephantiasis with a massively swollen leg—and was panicked as students interviewed and examined her. Communication was difficult as many of the actors spoke in their native languages. In the college’s Clinical Skills and Simulation Center, Dr. David Brasil, a guest instructor from Brazil, presented an interactive simulation of Chagas disease. The cardiologist explained how the parasitic infection often occurs in rural areas, where it is spread by bug feces and can become deadly over time. Dr. Brasil treats hundreds of Chagas patients in his native land.

Using “Harvey,” the college’s computerized cardio-pulmonary mannequin, Dr. Brasil demonstrated how holding a Q-tip or ink pen to a patient’s chest can diagnose the condition. He and College of Medicine faculty member Dr. Bernard Gros, a fellow cardiologist, showed how the pen bounced downward twice in response to the rhythm of the ailing heart. The condition is known as an “S3” or a “third heart,” because the heart has three beats or a “lub-dub-dub” sound through a stethoscope instead of a healthy heart’s dual “lub-dub” sound. The third heart condition can be caused by chronic Chagas disease. In addition to learning the condition by watching the pen move, students listened to Harvey and compared his symptoms as he was programmed to have a healthy heart and one impaired by Chagas.

“Simulation offers many people to get exposure to diseases that you can’t always see clinically,” said the College of Medicine’s Dr. Judy Simms-Cendan, director of international experiences and MedPACt advisor. “It also makes the learning much more exciting when the students have an opportunity to make the diagnosis on their own.”

Organizers hoped educating attendees on the devastating diseases would spark a desire to help those in need. Second-year M.D. student Nicole Spitzer recalled how much she learned about tropical illnesses from visiting the Dominican Republic and planning this year’s conference. “It’s a great opportunity for students to not only have someone talk to them about neglected tropical diseases, but also to see them in action.”

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