Annual Hesburgh Lecture Focuses on Global Health

Mary Ann McDowell

News Story: October 24, 2014

On Wednesday evening, Sacred Heart University, in collaboration with the Notre Dame Alumni Club of Fairfield County, presented its 10th annual Hesburgh Lecture. This year’s topic was “Fighting for Global Health.” Part of the University’s Human Journey Colloquia Series, the event featured guest speaker Mary Ann McDowell, associate professor, biological sciences, at the University of Notre Dame.

McDowell chairs the Faculty Advisory Committee of the Eck Institute for Global Health, a university-wide enterprise that recognizes health as a fundamental human right and works to advance health standards for all people. Her teaching and research, and that of her fellow Eck associates, primarily focuses on infectious diseases. Her presentation was timely given the current Ebola crisis, about which she spoke as well as providing an overview of the mission of the Institute.

Founded in 2010, the endowment-supported Eck Institute looks at infectious diseases, primarily among poor and low-income populations where the rate of these maladies is as high as 45 percent, mostly among children. Malaria, which causes the death of 660,000 children under the age of five each year—about one child per minute—is a leading focus. Though it may surprise many, malaria has long been present in the U.S., but has gradually been eradicated due to urban development that has reduced the breeding grounds of mosquitoes, the common carrier. Today, malaria is more often a problem for the U.S. military, whose members are frequently deployed to remote worldwide areas, McDowell noted.

She said the Eck Institute studies diseases in the host, the disease model and parasites, seeking to understand how diseases spread and interact. The Institute also helps strengthen faith-based hospitals in developing countries, trains upcoming physicians in global health approaches, sends students to work at field sites and, in the case of the Ebola outbreak, ships donated medical supplies to affected areas, like Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Offering a topline about Ebola, McDowell explained that the disease is a single strand RNA virus—an intracellular pathogen—that primarily attacks white blood cells, blocks immune system response and propagates. It is believed to originate in bats and occasionally gorillas and is transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids. Symptoms include bleeding, muscle aches, coughing and diarrhea, which can be similar to the flu, making it hard to diagnose.

Ebola is mostly only present in sub-Saharan African, with about 9,000 cases to date—about 4,500 fatal—as that region lacks the resources to effectively respond to it. However, Center for Disease Control worst-case scenario projections of 500,000 to 1.4 million cases by January 2015 make Ebola a worldwide concern, McDowell concluded.