Spotlight On: Research

Modeling schistosomiasis with mathematics

Katharine Toledo, Staff Reporter

More than a decade ago, Dr. Charles King and David Gurarie teamed up to simulate outbreaks of schistosomiasis using complex modeling. King, a professor of international health at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and Gurarie, a mathematics professor with the CWRU College of Arts and Sciences, united over their interest in public health and began their efforts to first model, then treat, schistosomiasis.

Schistosomiasis, a disease caused by parasites carried by worms and transmitted through snail larvae, affects more than 200 million people across the planet. Considered to be one of the most devastating parasitic diseases, second only to malaria, schistosomiasis is one of the so-called Neglected Tropical Diseases and is known for its devastating effects on poverty-stricken communities.

The model created by Gurarie and King simulates the effects of the disease on different demographic groups, some of whom are more susceptible to the disease than others. For example, rice farmers and fishermen are particularly susceptible to the disease because they spend much of their time in the water, and the disease is transmitted through snail larvae, which are laid in water.

The research of Gurarie and King is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and focuses on evaluating the success of current treatment protocols stipulated by the World Health Organization (WHO) that are being used in the treatment of schistosomiasis across the globe. The goal of the research is to help WHO amend these protocols to decrease the worldwide effects of the disease in an effort to eventually eradicate schistosomiasis all together.

“We took WHO guidelines in realistic communities into our models and tested it. What we observed is that those guidelines won’t work,” said Gurarie.

Due to limited resources and funding, treatment and prevention efforts are currently focused primarily on school children.

King said, “Treating within schools is fairly efficient because most schools have class lists that you can use as your base for case finding and account for how many children are treated. You want to reach a certain saturation in order for treatment to have an impact.”

“You have limited resources and you have to decide how to use them,” said Gurarie. “In some cases, preventing the transmission of schistosomiasis can be more efficient than drugs. With malaria, this is the case. Drugs are good, but they don’t solve the problem.”

Gurarie and King hope to someday have their research turned into a formula in the form of a smartphone app that can be used to better dictate how different communities should respond to outbreaks given their resources.