Emerging diseases such as dengue, Zika, and chikungunya represent major problems in tropical regions but infectious diseases do not recognize geographic or political boundaries. In recent years, the range of Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, both of which can carry dengue, Zika, and chikungunya, has been expanding into formerly more temperate climate zones and the viruses they carry won’t be far behind. Once they catch up, they are poised to gain a permanent foothold in currently non-endemic areas, including North America and Europe.
If we want to be truly proactive about preempting a looming health care emergency on our doorstep, scientific research using state-of-the art technologies cannot be restricted to resource-rich countries. Open questions such as how viruses like dengue and Zika are spreading into new geographic ranges, how they cause disease, and how our body’s immune system controls these infections can be more efficiently answered if we engage people from diverse backgrounds and conduct these studies in both endemic and non-endemic countries.
Therefore, we need to tackle these emerging diseases through mutually beneficial partnerships with countries such as Nepal or Thailand that are hit the hardest but not yet well equipped to study the viruses’ epidemiology or control recurrent outbreaks. That’s why we partnered with Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Our long-term goal is to develop a robust local research infrastructure that empowers Nepal to tackle the health crisis in their country but also make important contributions to the global knowledge base. Together, we have already started investigating basic virology and immunologic questions such as: What strains of dengue, Zika, and Chikungunya viruses are circulating simultaneously in Nepal? What is the seroprevalence status of dengue or Zika immunity in the Nepalese population?
Those important questions can only be addressed by fairly collaborating with developing countries and not using them simply as sample providers for resource-rich laboratories. Conducting cutting-edge research here in the U.S. and Europe is of course necessary, but not sufficient. By educating researchers in countries such as Nepal, and helping them secure the resources that they need to conduct world-class research, we have the opportunity to create a vibrant scientific community that ultimately benefits everyone, including the US and Europe. It will allow us to be better prepared when we face the emerging diseases that other countries are already struggling with.