Targeting Malaysia’s Infectious Diseases through Research and Surveillance

February 1, 2019

Bass Connections Project Team Members
Clockwise from left: team photo; fieldwork; team members working at the hospital (courtesy of Duke Global Health Institute)

Southeast Asia is known as a hotspot for infectious diseases, including respiratory viruses that are transmitted through frequent contact between humans and animals. In the summer of 2018, an ambitious team of Duke students headed to Sarawak, Malaysia, to study emerging viruses and refine surveillance techniques.

In their video for Duke One Health, students reflected on their research experience as well as what they learned and achieved during their Bass Connections project in Malaysia.

To conduct respiratory virus surveillance, the team collected laboratory samples from chicken farms, slaughterhouses and kindergartens around Sibu, a small town in the Sarawak region of Borneo island. The team also worked to increase diagnostic capacity of the local hospital in Kapit, a remote town only accessible only by boat.

“It’s important for us to lay a groundwork for potential future research to take place in this region or even just to know what’s in the air,” David Chen 21 said. “By coming here, we can have a positive impact on the local community as well as foster continued collaboration between Duke University, Sibu Hospital and the Public Health Department.”

This project brought together Duke undergraduates, graduate students from the Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke Global Health Institute and School of Medicine and staff members from Kapit and Sibu hospitals. The project team also collaborated with Sibu Hospital Clinical Research Centre, SEGi University and the Sarawak State Health Department.

A diverse team of researchers helped ensure the project’s success. “For me, being able to work collaboratively with a team of undergraduates, graduate students, medical students and the medical staff here at Sibu Hospital has been incredibly useful career-wise,” Gina Kovalik 20 said. “It’s been really helpful to see what people are doing on the global health stage with different degrees and different capabilities.”

Jessica Choi is a master’s student in Global Health whose research with the team will also inform her master’s thesis on melioidosis, an infectious disease endemic to the region. “The purpose of my study is to bring in diagnostic tools that detect the disease easier and faster and more accessible for the laboratorians and physicians,” Choi said. “By [using] these novel tools, the physicians in Kapit will be able to diagnose patients more accurately and the patients will receive the right treatment in a timely manner.”

“I must say that we are enjoying all the collaborations that we [get] with the help of Duke and skillful students who are helping us to do these surveillance studies,” said Teck Hock Toh, director at the Clinical Research Center at Sibu Hospital. “I think it puts all the pieces together so that we can actually collaborate and do something that is useful not just for us, but also for Duke as well as for global clinicians.”

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