By India Ogazi 

Modern-day travel has made the world more easily accessible. Within 24 hours, you can fly from Houston to Peru and back to Houston again. But with that convenience, diseases once found in isolated areas are now appearing at hospitals in Texas.

To better understand infections that might spread to the United States, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch are collaborating with the U.S. Navy and the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia at Lima, Peru, to study infectious diseases in Cusco, Peru.

As the home of the former Inca Empire and the closest city to Machu Picchu, Cusco has been declared a World Heritage Site and is a major hub for tourism. With millions of visitors each year, Cusco is an ideal place to study diseases affecting travelers.

“A major goal of the UPCH-UTMB Collaborative Research Center — Cusco is to study infectious diseases and illnesses that have been neglected by the research community,” said Dr. Clinton White, director of the Infectious Diseases Division at UTMB.

Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia and the U.S. Navy’s Medical Research Unit No. 6 were key collaborators in the setup of the research center.

“We have a joint research project with the Navy, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, to study the causes and severity of travelers’ diarrhea,” said Dr. Miguel Cabada, director of the research center and UTMB adjunct instructor of infectious diseases.

Travelers’ diarrhea is a travel-related illness caused by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water in developing nations. In addition to diarrhea, the illness can cause abdominal pain, cramping and dehydration, which can last for more than a week.

While travelers’ diarrhea might seem like a common and minor consequence of traveling abroad, for soldiers deployed for combat, the illness can be debilitating.

The research center’s studies have helped identify the various causes of travelers’ diarrhea and will soon begin examining interventions to help prevent the illness.

The center also is concentrating on leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease that causes a disfiguring skin ailment, which can destroy the nose and throat.

While unusual in the United States, nearly 1,400 military personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were infected with the disease. Cabada works with a neighboring clinic to improve the diagnosis and treatment of leishmaniasis.

In addition, a grant from the National Institutes of Health is supporting studies of fasciolasis, a parasite that affects the liver. The disease can cause anemia and malnutrition in children. Diagnostics and treatment are not routinely available in Cusco.

“Through our studies, we brought diagnostics to hundreds of children, and we are working on testing new treatments,” Cabada said.

Since the research center opened in 2012, more than 80 children have been treated for fasciola.

More than a dozen medical students have trained at the research center.