AgBioResearcher to Study Social Aspect of Deadly Disease

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Richard Merritt studies Buruli ulcer in Ghana. (view larger image)

An AgBioResearch entomology scientist who studies the causes and transmission routes of a tropical disease known as Buruli ulcer is turning his attention to the social aspects of the disease and, in particular, how the stigma of it affects the lives of thousands of people.

AgBio researcher Richard Merritt will use a portion of a $143,000 grant from the McCord Research Foundation to develop education and family support programs aimed at teaching families how to identify and seek medical intervention for the ulcer in its early stages.

“Buruli ulcer is a devastating disease affecting thousands of children throughout West Africa, particularly in Ghana,” Merritt said. “The McCord Research Foundation’s generous grant will help to support research into how this horrific disease is transmitted. It also will allow us to work with staff in the country itself to establish an education program assisting parents to identify the early presence of the ulcer in their children and help support education for the children while they are in the hospital.

“We’re hoping to eliminate the stigma associated with Buruli ulcer and get families to take action early, reducing the often painful suffering and isolation that goes along with contracting the disease.”

The bacterium responsible for Buruli ulcer—Myocobacterium ulcerans—is a genetic cousin to bacteria that cause leprosy and tuberculosis. As with leprosy, patients with Buruli ulcer can develop painful and unattractive sores on their bodies that can eventually cripple and even kill them.

More common in children than adults—about 70 percent of those with the disease are younger than 15 years old—Buruli ulcer mainly affects children in poor, rural areas. If left untreated, the ulcer can spread and painful scar tissue develops.

The disease also destroys the social and emotional lives of school-age children because they are isolated from family and friends. Most children aren’t allowed to attend school because of the condition.

The McCord Research Foundation grant enhances the funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation Emerging Infectious Disease section to conduct a five-year study investigating possible links among biting aquatic insects, water quality, landscape and Buruli ulcer transmission in Ghana. The NIH grant was awarded to MSU, with a subcontract awarded to the University of Tennessee.

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