Research at USF Health

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One of world’s leading experts on river blindness calls USF home

While well recognized and respected among their professional peers, many USF Health researchers toil relentlessly — and often in relative obscurity from the general public.  Day in and day out, they do the exacting work of science needed to prove theories, develop new diagnostic tests and surveillance methods, and find new ways to prevent, control or treat disease.

Thomas Unnasch, PhD, professor and chair of global health at the USF College of Public Health, is just one example – but a fascinating one.  His laboratory is housed in the USF Research Park, where he is a core faculty member of Global Health Infectious Diseases Research team.  But his life’s work with rare parasitic diseases has taken him from the forests and savannahs of Africa to the swamps of the Tuskegee National Forest to the wetlands and pastures of Eastern Hillsborough County.

Screen shot_CNN Health

Unnasch is one of the world’s leading experts on river blindness, technically known as onchocerciasis, a parasitic disease spread by the bite of a black fly that breeds in fast-flowing rivers. He is also a top authority on the ecology of Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), one of the most deadly mosquito-borne diseases in the United States, and other encephalitis viruses such as West Nile and St. Louis viruses.

Just last week, Unnasch was prominently featured in the CNN Health story With River Blindness, ‘you never sleep,’ which depicts the misery suffered by Africans afflicted by the rare tropical disease.  Unnasch chairs an expert advisory committee consulting with the Ugandan Ministry of Health on efforts to eliminate the blinding infection from the African country by 2020.  He travels to Uganda each summer with the senior epidemiologist from the Carter Center’s River Blindness Program.

This fall, a “triple E virus” study led by Unnasch, working with colleagues at Auburn, was picked up by media outlets across the country after appearing in the New York Times.  The researchers found that snakes in the wild likely serve as a safe winter home for EEE, which cannot survive inside hibernating mosquitoes. Their work may lead to a strategy to counter the spread of the virus.

Unnasch expressed surprise at the media attention that the snake study attracted, and he didn’t even know about the CNN story until his daughter sent him the post.   Like many academic scientists, he and his team remain laser-focused on advancing research that could help make the world a healthier place.