Gary Weil, MD, professor of medicine and of molecular microbiology, is dedicated to ending the suffering and death from the neglected tropical diseases known as elephantiasis and onchocersiasis. He and other public health researchers hope to one day completely eliminate the parasites that cause the conditions, and in 2010, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided Weil with a five-year, $13 million grant to support their efforts.
Elephantiasis is caused by parasitic filarial worms, which are transmitted by mosquito bites. Scientists estimate that 120 million people worldwide are infected with these worms. In 40 million of these people, the worms cause illness, which in some cases can include serious disfigurement and disability.
An approach known as mass drug administration (MDA), which gives anti-filarial medications to everyone in regions with high infection rates, has been successful in eliminating infections in parts of Egypt and other nations. Scientists are currently applying MDA in additional nations with high infection rates.
A related parasite, onchocerciasis, is spread by black fly bites and infects an estimated 20 million people, mainly in Africa. Infections cause debilitating skin disease and can lead to blindness.
Eradication efforts similar to the campaign against elephantiasis are under way against this parasite but may take longer to complete. Weil (at left in photo) and his colleagues are looking for ways to help speed the eradication campaigns and make them more effective.