A tribute to the late Dr. Marilyn O'Hara, founder and director of the Geographic Information Science and Spatial Epidemiology Laboratory, and advisor to graduate students in several disciplines at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
We landed in Bangalore International Airport after a journey of about 20 hours then took a bus for 6.5 hours to reach our destination: Shimoga - the original site of Kyasanur Forest Disease (KFD) and the topic of my dissertation. Shimoga is part of the Malenadu region which means ‘heavy rainfall’ region in Kannada, which is the local language. The landscape here is interesting; it is crisscrossed with tons of paddy fields, coconut trees, areca, paper and rubber plantations.
Nestled in the Western Ghats of India, Shimoga is the district headquarter and our primary location for research on the epidemiology of KFD, a highly infectious disease system transmitted by ticks in India. The first cases of KFD were discovered here in 1957. The disease has been understudied, scientific information has been scant and repetitive and the disease itself is gradually expanding into newer regions. The first part of my dissertation showed a complete retrospective analysis of all KFD human cases from 1957 until 2017, which has never been done before. This information will be critical in developing interventions and understanding the eco-epidemiology of this disease.
Our hosts were Drs. Ananda K.J. from the Karnataka Veterinary, Animal and Fisheries Sciences University (Shimoga) and Srikanta Ghosh from Indian Veterinary Research Institute (Izzatnagar). For the next couple of days, we held focus group discussions about the history of KFD with veterinary and medical officers and visited the primary health center in the villages and their officers. We also interacted with the local people and the social workers who help in disseminating information regarding the KFD vaccine. We visited locations which have recently been experiencing KFD outbreaks and we also got to visit the original locus of the disease, the Kyasanur Forest. With this knoweldge and networking, we were able to set up a collaboration plan for future research.
While gathering information and making connections, I learned a lot about the animals that live in this region. This area also has a very distinctive breed of cow called the Malnad gidda meaning ‘small cows of the malnad area’. These cows are much smaller than the regular cows, are very independent and are free range and yield very small quantity of milk (about a liter and a half) which is believed to be highly valuable due to the medicinal quality of the milk. Shimoga is also home to the well-known Lion & Tiger Safari Park, the famous Sakrebyle Elephant camp and the beautiful Jog falls. The elephant camp is not just a hub for tourists to view elephants but also a center for research and care of the elephants.
Image caption: The late Dr. Marilyn O’Hara Ruiz and Sulagna at the Sakrebyle Elephant Camp in Shimoga
Sulagna Chakraborty is a Doctoral Student studying infectious disease epidemiology. Her research has aspects of vector surveillance, disease ecology, epidemiology and human behavioral changes that impact disease transmission. Sulagna is interested in One Health research and creating multidisciplinary initiatives. She loves to write poetry in different languages, traveling, cooking, watching movies and meeting new folks.