Rice’s Baker Institute hosts Global Health in a Globalized Texas Conference
As one of the most diverse cities in the United States, Houston is a mecca for international trade, travel, food and culture. While this diversity and globalization has had a positive impact on Houston’s economy, it has also created a vulnerability for the Bayou city and the state of Texas as a whole.
Community leaders, educators, politicians, researchers and medical professionals met for the Global Health in a Globalized Texas conference at Rice University’s Baker Institute to discuss Texas’ unique vantage point on international health issues and how Texas is prepared to respond.
In 2014, Texans faced the threat of an Ebola outbreak when Thomas Eric Duncan was treated at Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas. At the time, doctors and hospital administrators admitted their shortcomings in preparedness for caring with patients who contracted Ebola, but the question remains if Texas hospitals are prepared to treat not only patients with Ebola, but also patients suffering from Zika, Chagas Disease and other infectious diseases that come into the state.
“We are one of the hot spots for infectious diseases and Ebola taught us that we have a broken model,” said Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “In order to be effective in these situations, we need to be prepared on the front end.”
Zika virus, the mosquito-borne illness that can be catastrophic for expecting mothers and their unborn children, is presenting more challenges to Houston and the state of Texas than Ebola at the present time. Although no one has been infected with Zika virus in Texas to date, hospitals are currently treating patients who have contracted the disease elsewhere.
“There are a couple of regulatory hurdles we are facing to find a vaccine for Zika,” Hotez said. “To find a vaccine, we need to be able to test a sample group, and the sample group we need is one of the most vulnerable groups—expecting mothers.”
Hotez notes that the key to being prepared for infectious disease outbreaks is not only preparedness and research in the hospitals, but also research and testing by pharmaceutical companies long before an outbreak occurs.
Another infectious disease researchers are preparing for is Chagas disease. Historically, the disease has impacted Mexico, Central America and South America, but it is quickly making its way into Texas and the Southern United States. The disease is caused by a bite from a “kissing bug” and if left untreated, can cause birth defects and severe cardiac complications.
“We are at a very high risk of Chagas disease here in Texas, and many people do not realize that,” said Paula Stigler-Granados, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Management, Policy and Community Health at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) San Antonio regional campus. “Doctors are not familiar with the disease so they do not screen for it, but 10 or 15 years down the road, people begin showing symptoms.”
At the Texas Medical Center researchers and doctors are working to be proactive in researching and treating the diseases that are impacting the area and the diseases we have yet to encounter.
“If we [the United States] are going to continue to be a health care leader in the world, we need to put funds into medical research,” said Rep. Gene Green. “I am so proud to have the Texas Medical Center in our backyard because of the research they are doing to cure these diseases, and as a country we need to continue to empower our medical centers and create infrastructure for this work to be done.”