Professors to Study Food Insecurity, Air Pollution in Ecuador

Last Updated on May 15, 2014 at 1:46 pm

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

The Ecuadorian government has awarded prestigious fellowships to two faculty members in the Department of Public Health Sciences at The University of Texas at El Paso to help build Ecuador’s research and academic infrastructure.

M. Margaret (Meg) Weigel, Ph.D., professor and director of the Master of Public Health (MPH) program, and Rodrigo X. Armijos, M.D., Sc.D., associate professor in the College of Health Sciences, received the Prometeo senior fellowships from the Ecuadorian National Secretariat of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation (SENESCYT).

UTEP faculty members M. Margaret (Meg) Weigel, Ph.D., and Rodrigo X. Armijos, M.D., Sc.D., recently were awarded fellowships from the Ecuadorian government to conduct food insecurity and air pollution research in Ecuador. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

UTEP faculty members M. Margaret (Meg) Weigel, Ph.D., and Rodrigo X. Armijos, M.D., Sc.D., recently were awarded fellowships from the Ecuadorian government to conduct food insecurity and air pollution research in Ecuador. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

For the next three years, Weigel and Armijos will spend their summer and winter breaks in Quito, Ecuador, where Armijos will investigate the adverse effects of air pollution on the cardiovascular health of children and families and Weigel will conduct research on household food insecurity in women and children. Food insecurity occurs when households are unable to produce, purchase or otherwise access foods needed for a socially acceptable and nutritious diet or when household management of food and other resources is sub-optimal.

“These fellowships are helping to jumpstart research (in Ecuador),” Weigel said. She and Armijos will start their fellowships in May 2014. “The results from our research projects will be shared with the Ecuadorian government and non-governmental organizations, along with our recommendations for policy and for program changes. We will also be helping Ecuador’s research infrastructure, because we’ll be training faculty, medical residents and medical students on how to conduct research.”

The goal of the Prometeo Fellowship program is to strengthen higher education, research, technological development and the capacity for innovation in Ecuador and its institutions through high-level knowledge transfer from expert senior fellows.

Fellowships in this competitive Ecuadorian government flagship program are awarded to fewer than 15 percent of all investigators who apply.

Weigel and Armijos are expanding on studies they previously conducted in the South American country.

From 2010-12, Weigel, students from UTEP’s Minority Health International Research Training (MHIRT) Program, and Ecuadorian colleagues conducted a study of 515 people in three Ecuadorian neighborhoods to look at the impact of household food insecurity on maternal-child diet, nutritional status and health.

Weigel found that persons from food-insecure homes had diets low in micronutrient-rich foods and they reported poorer physical and mental health. In addition, women and female adolescents from food-insecure homes were more likely to suffer from iron-deficiency anemia and show evidence of past or current growth stunting.

For her new study, Weigel will collaborate with faculty, pediatric residents and medical students in the Department of Pediatrics and Community Development at The Central University of Ecuador School of Medicine.

Investigators will examine how household food insecurity affects children and families in Ecuador to make policy and program recommendations to the Ecuadorian government and non-governmental organizations for child and family nutrition policy programs.

“Ecuador has more than enough food to feed the entire population all the time,” Weigel said. “The problem is that certain groups in the population have reduced access to food or money to buy food because of their very low income. They’re marginalized populations. We’re also looking at ethnicity. We have a large Afro-Ecuadorian and indigenous population.”

From 2009-11, Armijos, a native of Ecuador, led a study in Quito funded by the National Institutes of Health. In conjunction with UTEP, Ecuadorian faculty and UTEP MHIRT program students, Armijos looked at the cardiovascular health of children in neighborhoods with varying levels of air pollution.

This time, Armijos and his colleagues from the University of Central Ecuador’s Biomedical Research Institute in Quito will study whether long-term exposure to high levels of air pollutants caused by heavy traffic promotes atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, in children and adults.

He is conducting a similar study in El Paso to see if transient exposure to high levels of air pollution causes oxidative stress and systemic inflammation in elementary school-aged children.

While Armijos is in Ecuador, his research assistants Juan Aguilera and Eric Martinez will continue their work on the El Paso air pollution study.

Since last August, Aguilera, a graduate student in the Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) program, has recruited participants for the study, performed cardiovascular assessments and interviews, and ensured that administrative tasks run smoothly.

Aguilera, who is a physician in Mexico, is confident in the abilities he has developed as a student in the M.P.H. program to follow Armijos’ specific guidelines to continue the study during his absence.

“Considering we’re directly applying the concepts and knowledge from the Master’s program, (this study) provides us with hands on experience about the tasks and challenges of conducting research in a public health setting.”

The Prometeo Fellowship program supports Ecuador’s progressive “Buen vivir” or Good Living concept, which, according to the country’s constitution, seeks to “better the quality of life of the population.”

“Ecuador is a trendsetter in Latin America,” Weigel said. “The constitution guarantees the basic right to a number of different kinds of things. Adequate, culturally appropriate food is one of them and clean air is another one.”

In addition to her research, Weigel also will teach seminars and workshops for pediatric and OB-GYN medical residents, medical students and faculty in the areas of lifespan health and nutrition, quantitative and qualitative research methods, writing for peer-reviewed journals, and grant writing.

Armijos will help to develop the country’s first master’s program in environmental science. The interdisciplinary program will involve people from health, engineering, geology, veterinary and agriculture fields.

Through the years, Weigel and Armijos have collaborated on different health and nutrition studies, including research on infectious diseases and climate change.

In July, they will present the preliminary results of their current research with Ecuadorian colleagues, William Cevallos, M.D., and Manuel Calvopina, M.D., Ph.D., on the effects of climate change on leishmaniasis epidemiology and changes in traditional and conventional leishmaniasis treatment practices in Ecuador at the 3rd National Meeting of Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine Research.

They will be joined by three students in the M.P.H. program – Isabel Gonzalez, Mariel Matamoros and Evan Kipp – at a workshop that will take them into the jungle to learn about the disease in its natural habitat.

For Kipp, who is a graduate research assistant on Armijos’ project to develop a DNA vaccine against cutaneous leishmaniasis (a form of the infection that causes skin sores) the trip is a great opportunity to learn about the disease outside the lab.

“Working in a lab, it’s kind of far removed from the disease itself,” Kipp said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to see not only the people who are affected by the disease but also to see some of that epidemiology and to look at the way that this disease is spread in some of these tropical areas.”

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