Children’s Drawings Help Raise Awareness of Deadly Disease Spread by Insects

Insects carrying the parasite Trypansoma cruzi often bite at night while people are sleeping. In some cases, people who contract the parasite develop flu-like symptoms, or more commonly, get a swollen eye, but some show no signs of illness at all. The parasite, which causes Chagas disease, can cause silent damage leading to an enlarged heart or colon many years after the infection. An estimated 8-9 million people have been infected with Chagas disease, which is prevalent in poor communities in Latin America but is also found in the southern United States, Canada and Europe as people migrate from Latin America.

Although the parasite is most commonly spread through bites from triatomine bugs, it can also be spread from mother to child or through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Some people who have been bitten never contract the disease. There are two treatment options available for those who have Chagas  disease, but prevention is still the best option for those living in areas where the disease and the bugs are prevalent. 

This knowledge and interest in tropical medicine and neglected diseases, like Chagas, brought Global Health Master of Public Health (MPH) student Violetta Yevstigneyeva to the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, an autonomous public university in the state of Yucatán, Mexico, for her MPH practicum. The university has been working in the surrounding community for over seven years to educate the population on the insect, Chagas disease, what to do when bitten and how community members can prevent the bugs from entering their homes. Yevstigneyeva worked with the university to install window nets in homes, and assisted with an adult education session, but her primary focus was investigating how knowledgeable children in four of the surrounding rural villages were about the disease.

Children look at drawings of the bug that causes Chagas Disease

The children only received information from their parents or members of the community who had attended education sessions held by the university. Yevstigneyeva wanted to determine how effective these sessions were, and asked the children to draw the bug, write what it feeds on and where the bug might live in a house as a two-week take-home project. The results revealed that community-wide education efforts, like pamphlets, were successful in imparting this information from the parents and community to the local children. Yevstigneyeva helped coordinate an exposition in each village as well as one large exhibition to showcase the drawings. All the students, teachers and community members were invited to look at the drawings and hear a speaker discuss the importance of preventing Chagas disease.  “It was great to see my research turn into an awareness activity for the whole community,” Yevstigneyeva said.

After her return from Mexico, Yevstigneyeva was selected to present her research findings at the 62nd Annual American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) conference, held November 13-17, 2013 in Washington, DC. She had always aspired to present at the ASTMH annual conference, a meeting that focuses on the latest scientific advances in tropical medicine and global health. “I was able to meet with several researchers who found my research valuable for Chagas prevention programs, and were interested in adding these types of children’s activities to their own projects,” she said.

Yevstigneyeva at ASTMH with her site preceptor from Yucatán, Mexico

The Department of Global Health Service Fellowship funded Yevstigneyeva’s research and practicum work in Mexico. She graduated with her MPH in Global Health in design, monitoring and evaluation in December 2013.