Tufts professor receives U.N. award for cholera outbreak prediction methods

Shafiqul Islam, director of Tufts’ Water Diplomacy Program, received the Creativity Award in the seventh Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water (PSIPW) from the United Nations (U.N.) on Nov. 2 for his work in cholera outbreak prevention.

Islam, who is also a professor in both the Tufts Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, was honored at the U.N. headquarters in New York in a ceremony presided over by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and PSIPW Chairman Prince Khaled Bin Sultan Bin Abdulaziz.

Cholera is a bacteria in water that can kill an afflicted person within a day of infection through severe dehydration, Islam said. However, he added that cholera deaths are highly preventable and that if a good cholera outbreak prediction is made, those deaths can be easily minimized.

“A glass of water full of salt and sugar … if you [drink] this for 24 hours, cholera will essentially get out of your system,” he said. “If not, you may get killed [due to] dehydration.”

Islam said that over the past eight to 10 years, he and his research group have been working on a way to minimize cholera outbreaks, which have a disproportionate health impact depending on geographic location.

“[Cholera outbreaks] continue to be a major health threat particularly in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America,” he said. “The cholera bacteria can live in two distinct environments: the micro-environment of the human body and the macro-environment of salty water.”

According to Islam, he and his research team came up with a method for predicting cholera outbreaks by using satellites, which allow for a faster mobilization of resources and more preparation for highly vulnerable groups before the outbreak occurs.

According to a 2011 National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) article, satellites were integral to Islam’s research because they can pick out green patches of ocean water that indicate the presence of phytoplankton. The cholera bacteria live in microscopic aquatic organisms called copepods, which feed on phytoplankton. During the dry season in Bangladesh, where Islam conducted his research, river levels drop and ocean water comes in, bringing the cholera-infested copepods with it, according to NSIDC.

Islam said that by looking at his data, one can predict that a significant cholera outbreak will occur three months from now in countries, such as Mozambique, which are affected by water contamination.

“Through prediction, we can actively aim to prevent it,” he said.

Islam said that receiving the award in recognition of his years of disciplinary research was “humbling.”

“I hope … that [the recognition garners] global attention to this problem,” he said. “It can help us develop awareness [about cholera outbreaks].”

Islam collaborated with Ali Shafqat Akanda from the University of Rhode Island and Antarpreet Jutla from West Virginia University, two of his Ph.D. students who recently graduated from Tufts. He also noted that the research findings resulted from a collaboration between Tufts and the University of Maryland.

Kurt Pennell, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said that the team’s interdisciplinary approach led to consistent and significant results in the field of cholera prevention and mitigations.

“We are grateful that [the U.N.] has not only recognized [the team’s] achievements but also provided prominence to this timely and humane work,” Pennell told the Daily in an email.

David Gute, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said that winning the PSIPW is an outstanding accomplishment.

“Professor Islam has made his career at the interface between disciplines which feature different ways of knowledge creation that require synthesis and integration,” Gute said. “As a public health practitioner, I can attest to the importance of such work in being able to better to respond to the continuing challenges posed by this global scourge.”


COPYRIGHT 2022 THE TUFTS DAILY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.