“For many years now, I have been working in the area of how microorganisms, bacteria and parasites in particular, cause trouble in our gastrointestinal track, and you could say that I am nothing but a diarrhea doc.” Dr. Richard Guerrant’s accolades, however, tell a very different story.
Most recently, Governor Bob McDonnell named the 68-year-old Virginia native and Founder and Director of the Center for Global Health at the UVA School of Medicine one of the state’s top scientists.
Dr. Richard Guerrant has been working to end infectious childhood diarrhea in developing countries. A Virginia native and graduate of UVA’s School of Medicine, Guerrant was recognized as one of Virginia’s 2012 Outstanding Scientists by Governor Bob McDonnell. (Photo courtesy of UVA)
For more than 30 years, Guerrant’s research has taken him around the world and focused on northeast Brazil, where he has studied the causes and consequences of infectious childhood diarrhea.
“When you realize that a third of all the children in developing countries, actually one in every five children on the planet, is moderately to severely stunted, this is arguably one of the world’s biggest health problems and it’s just the lack of adequate water and sanitation,” he said.
According to the research, more than 1 million children worldwide die every year from infectious diarrhea, or, as Guerrant put it, 3,000 every day.
“But the more we worked in Northeast Brazil, the more we realized that the impact on the children who don’t die may be even more horrific,” said Guerrant, a graduate of UVA’s School of Medicine.
Children who suffer repeated bouts of diarrhea in the first two years of their life show stunted cognitive growth. The infections, said Guerrant, “could probably knock 10 IQ points off of a child’s development.”
Interestingly, Guerrant found that the specific cognitive deficit observed in his study relates to the children’s higher executive functions, much like the higher level of thinking that is lost in Alzheimer’s patients.
“When the hit is a third of the world’s poorest children, it’s just unimaginably huge and we need to find a way for our science and our humanity to address this, because we are all in it together,” he said.
Thanks to a $30 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Guerrant and UVA colleague William Petri Jr., are leading a five-year study that looks into the infections in the first two and three years of life, and how they can alter growth and development.
“One of the hard parts is that one of the best tests of IQ is six or seven years down the road, but nobody wants to fund anything that is beyond the immediate,” said Guerrant.
Although Guerrant acknowledged that science plays a big role in defeating the problem, he argued that investing in safer water infrastructure was just as critical.
“In the meanwhile, we have some really interesting data, potential vaccine options and potential interventions to repair the damage, but these are stopgap measures and we need them both, the stopgap measures and the long term commitment,” he said.
Along with Guerrant, Governor McDonnell recognized Dr. Kenneth Kendler of Virginia Commonwealth University and John Milliman of the College of William & Mary.
“Their creativity, contributions and dedication will make a better Virginia and a better America for all of us,” McDonnell said in a news release.
“It’s kind of great for a Virginia kid who actually can do something, some of the times thanks to, most importantly, an amazing group of colleagues and friends who I am privileged to work with,” said Guerrant.