Mayans, Mercury, and Medical Equipment: Beginning my Career in Global Health

June 04, 2015
Peru and Guatemala
Starting my research career in Peru and Guatemala

By Anthony Saxton

Mosquito net? Check.

Medical equipment? Check.

Sunglasses? Double check.

Looks like I’m all packed and ready to start a new adventure!

My journey starts in Guatemala, where I will spend a week learning about health disparities that the indigenous Mayan populations face. My plan is to take medical Spanish lessons to brush up on my language skills and shadow the doctors at Mayan Medical Aid, a health clinic that offers free medical services to the indigenous communities surrounding Lake Atitlan.

Then, I will travel to Peru to conduct health research in the Amazon rainforest alongside a team of undergraduate and graduate students through the Bass Connections program. There, we will help out with the Hunt Oil research study led by my professor and mentor, William Pan. His team is conducting a demographic health study to measure baseline health statistics of Amazonian communities before oil companies start to drill in the Madre de Dios region of Peru. We will get a chance to help the fieldworkers go door to door to give a health survey and collect hair, nail, blood, sputum, and urine samples to test for diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

While we are in Peru, our Bass Connections team will also get a chance to conduct a few research projects of our own. One of the issues we will be researching is the impact that illegal gold mining has on the health of populations in the Amazon. Illegal gold mining is a major issue for the country. Not only does it cause massive destruction of the rainforest, but also the use of mercury during the mining process has contaminated the local waterways and is ending up in the food people eat, particularly in fish.

In addition to the mercury project, we also will get a chance to travel down the Madre de Dios River to visit some of the isolated communities deep in the heart of the jungle. There, we will do some entomological sampling (bug collection!) to identify potential vector species that carry diseases like malaria, dengue, and leishmaniasis.

Finally, during my time in Peru I will be conducting my own research project to investigate the use of medical devices to detect diabetes. The idea for this project came out of conversations with Peruvian health post workers who lamented that they did not have a reliable way to test their patients for the disease. The current gold-standard method for diagnosing diabetes is to send a blood sample to a laboratory to test for Hemoglobin A1C (HbA1C) levels. Unfortunately, this is nearly impossible to do in the Amazon because the communities are extremely isolated and some are only accessible by boat or helicopter. Also, the cost of the shipping the blood and running the lab tests is prohibitively expensive for most of the patients.

However, there is a ray of hope for reliable diabetes testing in this area. Point-of-care (POC) machines are capable of measuring HbA1C on-site at the health posts, but the technology has not yet been proven to be effective in this type of setting. Therefore, I am going to test how accurate and precise the machines work there to give the health posts evidence about whether to incorporate them into their practice.

Altogether, this promises to be an exciting and adventurous summer and the perfect way to start my career in global health!