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Colwell’s research on prevention of waterborne infectious diseases has been helpful to many
Dr. Rita Colwell, distinguished professor from the University of Maryland and John Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health in the United States, has been named the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate. Colwell’s research on the prevention of waterborne infectious diseases has been helpful to many.
Colwell, 76, is recognized as one of this century’s most influential voices in science, technology and policy associated with water and health. She has made contributions to control the spread of cholera, a waterborne pathogen that infects 3 to 5 million people and leads to an estimated 120,000 deaths each year. Through her research, innovations and scientific leadership, she has developed the use of advanced technologies to halt the spread of infectious diseases. Her work has established the basis for environmental and infectious disease risk assessment used around the world.
“Dr. Rita Colwell’s numerous seminal contributions towards solving the world’s water and water-related public health problems, particularly her work to prevent the spread of cholera, is of utmost global importance,” noted the Stockholm Water Prize Nominating Committee in its citation. “Through her research on its physiology, ecology and metabolism, Dr. Colwell advanced the fields of mathematics, genetics and remote sensing technology and not only as they relate to these bacteria but to the prevention other diseases in many developing countries.”
In the 1960s, Dr. Colwell observed that the causative agent for cholera, Vibrio cholera, could survive by attaching to zooplankton. This led to her discovery that certain bacteria, including the Vibrio species, can enter a dormant stage that could revert to an infectious state under the proper conditions. This means that even when there are no disease outbreaks, rivers, lakes and oceans can serve as reservoirs for these bacteria. These findings counteracted the conventional wisdom held that cholera was only spread from person to person, food or drinking water and that its presence in the environment could only be due to the release of sewage. As a result of her work, scientists are now able to link changes in the natural environment to the spread of disease.
Colwell has shown how changes in climate, adverse weather events, shifts in ocean circulation and other ecological processes can create conditions that allow infectious diseases to spread, and through that link she has led the ability to craft preemptive policies to minimize outbreaks. Her research in the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh, for example, demonstrated that warmer surface ocean temperatures have stimulated the growth of cholera-hosting zooplankton and directly led to an increase in the number of cholera cases. In the U.S. she was the first to lead research experiments on the impact of El Niño on human health and the aquatic environment. In the 1990s, Colwell was the first scientist to research the impacts of climate change on the spread of infectious diseases. She serves on dozens of international panels, including the Global Health Assembly, and as a top government public health advisor on adaptation strategies to climate change.
Over the years Colwell has worked to spread community-based water safety education and viable, low-cost technological innovations in communities throughout South Asia and in Africa. During the cholera pandemic in Latin and South America in the 1990s, ColwelL worked as national advisor to multiple governments. In Ecuador, her discovery of the presence of Vibrio cholerae in the hospitals and in the shrimp industry saved lives. In Peru, she was honored by the national government for her work to develop of drinking water criteria that helped guide policies to curb the spread of the disease.