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Mapping and preventing infectious diseases

Dr. Janey Messina (MS, 2008) is associate professor of social science research methods at the University of Oxford (UK) School of Global and Area Studies, with a joint appointment in the School of Geography and the Environment. She earned her BA from UCLA in 2005, MS from Illinois in 2008, and PhD from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2011, all in geography. Janey specializes in mapping the spread of vector-borne and other infectious diseases including dengue fever, Hepatitis C, and Zika. Last year, Janey published a comprehensive study in the journal Nature Microbiology that projects the global distribution of dengue through the year 2080.

What first attracted you to the field of geography?

In my first term as an undergraduate at UCLA, I signed up for an introductory biogeography class taught by Tom Gillespie. His enthusiasm for the topic was infectious and it inspired me to sign up for more classes in the geography department and eventually choose it as a major, with a focus on environmental studies. I loved the broad scope of the discipline and the fact that almost any problem or phenomenon could be seen through a geographic lens. When I really got hooked was in Michael Shin’s advanced GIS class, which I remember him saying was “only for people who like torture.” I guess that was true for me because a year after graduating and working odd internships, I missed advancing my skills in GIS so much that it led me to apply for the masters program in the Illinois geography department.

What geographic concepts and techniques did you study at Illinois?

When I first arrived at Illinois, I thought I would mainly be interested in the GIS methodology, but things took a turn after my first semester of classes, when Sara McLafferty taught us introductory statistics for geographers and I also signed up for a public health GIS class taught by Marilyn Ruiz. Together, Marilyn and Sara’s classes and mentorship made me realize that I was much more interested in applying GIS and statistical methods to the study of diseases than in the methodology of GIS itself. Professor Ruiz invited me to work on a project about a West Nile Virus outbreak in Chicago and that ended up being the topic of my masters thesis. Links between people and their environment are inherent to vector-borne disease research, and the ability to apply spatial analytical and statistical methods to understand these links was the perfect fit for my interests and skills.

How can maps help us control the spread of infectious diseases?

Maps have long been used to understand the location and spread of infectious diseases as well as for guiding public health control efforts. Disease distribution maps provide a visual representation of the geographic extents and scale of these public health problems. They can support decision makers whose job it is to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of various prevention and intervention measures, ranging from providing advice to individuals regarding vaccination or travel, to national and regional intervention strategies and global research funding decisions. Maps of the current distribution of infectious diseases can also serve as baselines for measuring the success or failure of prevention and intervention strategies, including vector control efforts and vaccine roll-out. Maps of reservoirs and vectors in relation to disease occurrence can also inform our understanding of the sources of outbreaks and novel disease emergence.

What observations or challenges can you share from your own research on viruses as we learn to live with COVID-19?

COVID-19 is the most important public health crisis of our generation, having been able to spread rapidly across the world because it is infectious before it is symptomatic. Geographers from all sub-disciplines have a great deal to contribute in terms of not only the patterns of its emergence and spread, but also inequalities in illness and healthcare access and the societal changes that will result from the pandemic. Perhaps more than any other virus or infectious disease I have studied, we as geographers can only make meaningful contributions to COVID-19 research if we avoid working within our separate bubbles and collaborate across the sub-disciplines and with those in other health, environmental, and social sciences.

Dr. Janey Messina's University of Oxford faculty page