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UNF conducts large-scale analysis on water pathogen circulation

pond on UNF campusA team of UNF students, led by Dr. Amber N. Barnes, assistant professor of public health, recently completed a One Health study, the first ever large-scale analysis on water pathogen circulation among Florida residents, animals and environmental reservoirs.

Florida is home to extensive waterways and an impressive coastline that provides opportunities for recreation, tourism and industry. However, water contact is not always benign as many infectious diseases are transmitted to humans and animals through the unintentional ingestion of contaminated water and seafood or spread through water-related vectors, like mosquitoes.  

The team used a One Health multidisciplinary approach that recognizes the health of people, animals, and their shared environment as interconnected. They investigated 33 waterborne diseases, water-related vector-borne diseases, and water-based toxins reported in Florida’s humans, animals, and environmental vectors and reservoirs between 1999-2019.

“The health of Floridians is directly tied to the health and well-being of our animals and our environment,” said Dr. Barnes. “Understanding more about which water-related diseases of public health importance are driving infection within our state can help us to initiative One Health policies and interventions that will lead to safer water interactions for all.”

Through a Seed Grant from the UNF Environmental Center, the study found over 200,000 confirmed cases of water-related disease reported to the Florida Department of Health over the last twenty years, the majority of which were waterborne disease and in particular, Salmonella infections. The very young and the elderly were more at-risk for waterborne disease while adults of working age were at a higher risk for water-based toxins and water-related vector-borne infections.  

Among studies conducted on Florida’s animal populations during the same time frame, Karenia brevis, the algal toxin responsible for Red Tide events was frequently documented while within the state’s environmental water reservoirs, Escherichia coli was commonly confirmed. Findings varied by reporting county with multiple diseases found across the state and within the different populations and sampling regions.  

This was the inaugural research project of Dr. Barnes’ new Coastal One Health and Zoonoses (COHZ) lab. The results of this comprehensive study have been presented virtually by student researchers at the UNC Water and Health conference and the World One Health Congress. Several scientific manuscripts are in development from this work.  

Watch Dr. Barnes present the study in “Water and Disease in Florida: A Look Back as a Way Forward.

The Environmental Center at the University of North Florida offers Seed Grants to stimulate the creation of multidisciplinary research projects related to the environment. The grants offered to faculty are intended to "seed" environmentally related research that subsequently results in the preparation and submission of a proposal to an external funding agency that is submitted through the Environmental Center. In addition, the Environmental Center especially hopes to inspire effective collaboration between faculty members and students in diverse disciplines. The Seed Grants are competitively awarded to the most meritorious proposals.

The Seed Grant program is supported by an endowment provided by the River Branch Foundation. A recent gift from the Vulcan Materials Company Foundation has allowed the Environmental Center to expand the Seed Grant program and offer two additional grants focused on water issues in Northeast Florida.