COLLEGE PARK, Md. – On Feb. 21 and 22, the University of Maryland’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) hosted members of the microbiology community, physical science community and public health community to discuss the impact of pathogens and algal toxins on human health.
The workshop, titled “Integrating Climate and Environmental Information with Disease Surveillance to Address Pathogens and Algal Toxins of Concern to Public Health,” focused on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. A later parallel workshop will focus on Washington’s Puget Sound.
After two years of planning, the University of Maryland Initiative: Climate Change Responding to User Needs (CIRUN) and the NOAA Oceans and Human Health Initiative (OHHI) worked together to jointly organize the workshop.
Participants came to the workshop with a specific goal: to identify how climate and environmental science can provide improved information support for decisions and policies of state and local public health agencies.
There have been workshops before dealing with human health issues in oceans and estuaries, said CIRUN Director Steve Halperin, but there is still a real disconnect between the three communities.
“If you were to listen to each panel separately, you wouldn’t have known that they were at the same workshop,” he said.
The different communities united through the breakout groups, however, to discuss the workshop’s two main focuses. Vibrios, the bacteria behind cholera and other illnesses, and Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) are problems that need to be addressed at all levels from an environmental, scientific, and public health perspective.
With 42 participants from organizations including UMD, ESSIC, NOAA, FDA, NIH, the Maryland Dept. Health & Mental Hygiene, the Maryland Dept. of the Environment and other national and international universities and institutions, everyone brought something different to the table.
“One of the outcomes that I was hoping for, and that I feel that we got, was a better understanding among the people that are working on these issues from the environmental monitoring side, from the prediction side, and from the public health side,” said Juli Trtanji, head of OHHI, “so that we begin to pull pieces together in a more unified fashion and begin to really work more as a collective team.”
From the health perspective, two different types of vibrios found in public bodies of water in the U.S. can cause human illnesses, either through consumption of contaminated shellfish or exposure to wounds while swimming in recreational waters.
Outside of the U.S., the type of vibrio that causes cholera has a much deadlier impact. This is why it’s important to study the issues on a global scale, said Dr. Martella DuPreez from the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa.
“What’s interesting is the bridging into the world of the stakeholders, those people who need to use this information that is generated,” she said. “You can use the integrated information to make better decisions and eventually save lives.”
Dr. Edythe Humphies tackles the issues from the natural resources perspective. Working at the State of Delaware Environmental Lab, she focuses mostly on drinking and recreational waters and attempts to find correlations between bays in Delaware and Maryland, which share the Delmarva Peninsula.
While the vibrios and HABs in the Chesapeake Bay are not particularly harmful to human health today, Humphries works to inform the public of other bodies of water that might be harmful to swim in or to use to supply drinking water.
“Right now the health issues as they relate to the environment are really being driven by the Natural Resource Department,” said Humphries. “Like other states and different agencies, there are priorities, so we’re driving the issues with public health and factors that could be linked to the environment.”
Humphries has been working to facilitate communication between the Maryland and Delaware areas of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Area, hoping to inform the public of vibrio and HAB hazards. Two years ago, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources put up warning signs around bodies of water with historical data of HABS.
“It’s really not an attempt to scare public, it’s an awareness type of thing,” Humphries said. There have been no reported HAB illnesses since then.
Between the environmental harms of HABs and the risks of human exposure to vibrios, Juli Trtanji and the OHHI are working to develop early warning systems for ocean related health risks.
Trtanji hoped that the workshop would help to bring the observational monitoring community together with the health community in order to predict and prevent harmful HAB and vibrio impacts on different species.
“The broader picture that we’re trying to get a hand on what should we be monitoring to track these changes over time, so there’s a federal, state, and local kind of connection here with different types of responsibility,” she said.
ESSIC Director Antonio Busalacchi says that while the threat of vibrio related health risks is low, it is still extremely important to prevent even one or two deaths. . Moreover, State plans to make aquaculture in the Bay an important addition to the local economy make it essential to avoid events which could cause hysteria and have disastrous impacts on the Bay area.
In order to support informed decisions and prevent health risks, there must be serious data integration across physical, natural and social sciences, Busalacchi said.
The workshop helped attendees work towards that goal.
“Being from all different perspectives was very helpful, everyone can now see how they fit in to the larger equation,” said Humphries, who plans to pass on her findings in the Delaware lab to the state health department.
According to Busalacchi, the structure of the workshop emphasized the “work” aspect. At the end, the participants produced a final report which integrated recommendations from each of the breakout groups.
“It’s important that, independent of each other, the work groups are hitting on the same things,” he said.
In a closing speech to the participants, Halperin posed the question: “Suppose a project would come along that would require a mix of these three communities to succeed? Would you like to be part of this project?”
Most of the participants identified with this need, signifying a success in the workshop’s goal to bring the different communities together.
A parallel workshop will be held in Puget Sound March 21 and 22.