GCSU student working to uncover deadly illness on island home


    Matt Mackie/WGXA

    MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. -- A Georgia College graduate student and Puerto Rico native is working to uncover a deadly illness that hit her home.

    In 2017, Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria. It made landfall with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour.

    Tropical storm force winds lasted an entire day, and torrential rainfall led to catastrophic flooding. After the storm, people on the island started dying of what appeared to be a bacterial disease.

    "A lot of people did not have water or electricity. It was very messy, " Zamara Garcia Truitt said.

    Truitt is a graduate student at Georgia College. She wasn't in puerto rico during the storm, but her family was. "It was rough. It was very dangerous. I think that's just the most appropriate word for it, just dangerous," said Truitt.

    Without running water in many homes, people on the island had to turn elsewhere for drinking water. "Many of the people in Puerto Rico, they went to rivers, creeks, they bathed," said Truitt.

    Dr. Dave Bachoon has been working with Caribbean researchers on water quality issues for 10 years. After the storm, he got a call from a colleague in Puerto Rico.

    "People were getting sick and dying, and they suspected it could be related to a pathogenic bacteria called leptospira," Bachoon said.

    Bachoon and Truitt set out to confirm that suspicion.

    "He was able to ship us samples from before and after the hurricane. We were able to test the for the pathogen," said Truitt.

    They were able to confirm leptospira was present in the water samples.

    "If you treat it as if it was the flu, you're not going to really treat the bacteria, the bacteria will still be reproducing," said Truitt.

    Their discovery helps with an understanding of a disease that causes problems across the Caribbean.

    "Apart from being from Puerto Rico, leptospirosis is a neglected disease. They don't really understand the genome, the DNA of this bacteria, how the organism works," said Truitt.

    Bachoon said that information is all the more important when climate change is considered -- rising temperatures are expected to lead to more rainfall and more flooding from hurricanes.

    "What we've found so far, whenever there's increased rainfall or flooding, there's an increased incidence of leptospirosis or infection on islands," said Bachoon.

    Our partners at Climate Central said warmer ocean water means more evaporation, more moisture, and more flooding from catastrophic storms like Maria. Find more information on leptospirosis through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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