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SDSU Gets Grant To Study Climate Change, Infectious Disease Links

Aired 3/2/12 on KPBS News.

San Diego State University recently received a grant to study the links between climate change and infectious disease. They’re focusing their research on the Tijuana River Estuary, a major source of pollution in the border region.

Will a rise in temperature cause potentially dangerous insects and microbes to flourish where they were once unknown? Will more, or less, rain cause diseases to spread further?

These are some of the questions that students at the SDSU College of Sciences will be tackling with a three-year, $250,000 grant from the Los Angeles-based Keck Foundation.

Undergraduate students will spend summers doing fieldwork in the Tijuana River Estuary that empties into the Pacific Ocean, just north of Mexico’s most populous border city. After heavy rains, sewage flows into the estuary and out to sea, affecting nearby beaches.

“The Tijuana River Valley really represents a key hotspot for potential problems with infectious disease,” said Stanley Maloy, dean of the College of Sciences.

Maloy said students would take a multidisciplinary approach to the research, employing biology, geospatial monitoring using satellite imagery and statistical modeling.

“What we hope we can do is make predictions about where the problems will be," Maloy said. "And if this new approach allows us to make those predictions, maybe we can stop the problem before it happens instead of treating people who get sick.”

The impacts of climate change on the spread of infectious disease is an understudied area, Maloy said. But scientists know that changes in the environment—such as increased water temperature and greater flooding—can cause big changes in the presence and spread of pathogens.

"Anything we can learn that will help us be able to make predictions to prevent disease has the likelihood to really impact people who live in the San Diego region and beyond,” Maloy said.

He said he hopes the research project will spread to other universities in the future.

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