BU students’ winning hackathon project could help fight neglected tropical disease | BU today
Of the 17 neglected tropical diseases (NTD), some are better known than others. NTDs affect the world’s poorest populations and have not historically received the same resources or attention as other infectious diseases. The public is familiar with the big NTDs – leprosy, malaria, rabies – but others, like dengue, mycetoma, and Chagas disease, are less well known but can be just as dangerous. Also on that lesser-known list is lymphatic filariasis, a parasitic condition sometimes referred to as elephantiasis. The mosquito-borne disease affects more than 120 million people worldwide, with the highest concentrations in Africa and Asia. If left uncontrolled, lymphatic filariasis can lead to painful swellings throughout the body, which can lead to severe disfigurement.
Fortunately, preventing the disease is simple: an annual dose of the antibiotic albendazole kills the parasitic worms carried by mosquitoes, which lodge in a person’s lymph vessels and cause swelling. But physically getting the pill to people each year and then getting them to take it can be a different and difficult matter.
âNTDs affect nearly two billion people worldwide – about one in five people on earth – but that is not evenly distributed. They affect the poorest of the poor, âsays Malwina Carrion (SPH’11, ’21), Lecturer in Health Sciences at Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences. âThe diseases we have treatments for often just don’t get through to people because it’s a matter of logistics, like taking a canoe to a really remote area. Or, if treatment required being connected to an IV every day, many people would basically choose to die [rather than receive treatment] because they spend this time in the field or have to look after the children. “
There is also the issue of local misunderstandings regarding NTDs and the drugs used to treat them. This is the topic that four BU students looked at during a recent NTD-focused hackathon sponsored by the Task Force for Global Health.
The topic of the virtual hackathon? “Spread truth, not disease.” The 12 participating teams had 24 hours to develop a product or service that would address misinformation about mass drug administration or seeking treatment. The winning idea of ââthe BU team: a tablet pack for albendazole specially designed for Tanzanians.
The team – Caroline Pane (Sargent’22), Bridget Yates (Sargent’22), Samuel Tomp (ENG’21) and Julia Hermann (Sargent’22) – came up with their concept after reading interviews with alleged Tanzanian citizens Are taking albendazole. The interviews – and the study they came from – showed that only 45 percent of people were actually taking the drugs they were given. Inflexible distribution methods, distrust of the government and partner organizations and unclear packaging contributed to the dismally low rate: “One of the quotes we read was something like, ‘You just have to trust the government and trust what they say, a pill is ‘for’, âexplains Pane. “And I thought, well that makes sense. I wouldn’t want to take an unmarked pill either! ”
Based on the interviews, the team designed new and improved packaging for single doses of albendazole. First? Just add the name of the disease the drug is treating. (There is no Swahili word for lymphatic filariasis, however mabusha refers to the swelling of the testicles and matende The team also realized that making it clear that the drug was taking was critical prevented lymphatic filariasis, no treated and list the most common side effects so that anyone who takes the drug is not surprised.
Finally, the BU students integrated visual aids. dThe use of minimal language, they stated in their presentation, makes âfuture translations more feasibleâ – but also makes complex concepts easy to understand. âA key element was a graphic that explained how the disease was transmitted because there was a lot of confusion about that in the studies we looked at,â says Yates. Thanks to a suggestion from their advisor appointed by the hackathon, they have modeled the graphic on a well-known Tanzanian cartoon, which helps create a feeling of familiarity among the population.
The team won US $ 500 each for its concept and the opportunity to virtually present its winning project to NTD experts at the annual conference of the Coalition for Operational Research on Neglected Tropical Diseases in November. And when Carrion sent the students’ work to her colleague Darin Evans (SPH’13) from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), he was so impressed that he invited the four to introduce his NTD team as well.
“The student contribution not only demonstrated a creative approach to dispelling myths about mass treatment campaigns, but also demonstrated an understanding of the burden of disease and the potential impact of culture and behavior on the success of such programs,” said Evans, a senior medical scientist and technical advisor for USAID’s NTD initiative. “While real application of the proposal would require some changes, the fact that a group of students came up with an idea in just 24 hours that could be compared to suggestions from professional consultants really impressed everyone.”
The BU team members say they were pleasantly surprised by the response to their project. “When we put the presentation together, I had the feeling that I was developing something unique,” says Tomp, “but I didn’t necessarily know that it would be so well received.”
For Pane, Yates, and Hermann, who all study health sciences, attending and winning the hackathon was also a cool opportunity to get hands-on experience outside of the classroom. “I’m more interested in going to the clinic in the future,” says Hermann, “but it was really interesting to see what we learned year after year to work in real situations.”
As for the presentation to the NTD experts at USAID? “It was pretty scary to get involved,” she says. “But overall it was a great experience.”
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