How Flooding is Informing Infectious Disease Spread

February 27, 2023
, shows the predicted historical (1991-2020) and future climate suitability distributions of Triatoma rubida, a species of kissing bug present in Texas
The figure above, generated by the Random Forest Classifier, shows the predicted historical (1991-2020) and future climate suitability distributions of Triatoma rubida, a species of kissing bug present in Texas.  

Researchers from UT Austin have been awarded a prestigious grant from the UK’s Wellcome Trust to understand how flood and storm surge modeling could help inform infectious disease spread in Texas and beyond.

As the Texan climate experiences increasingly extreme weather conditions like drought and flooding, cases of infectious diseases – once believed to be found only in the tropics – are now on the rise. One Texan researcher, who spent most of her career studying infectious diseases in every other corner of the globe, has found herself uniquely positioned to apply her global expertise in her home state…with a little help from her interdisciplinary friends at UT Austin.

A Molecular Bioscientist, Applied Mathematician and GIS Mapping Analyst Walk Into A Bar… 

Katy Brown is a Senior Research Fellow in the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and she, along with other UT researchers – Professor Clint Dawson  the Department Chair of  Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, Suzanne Pierce, a Research Scientist at Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), and Michael Shensky, Head of Data Services (and GIS mapping wizard) for UT Libraries – are key participants in a highly prestigious grant from the UK’s Wellcome Trust to analyze how flood modeling might help inform disease spread. 

Born in Cambridge, England, Brown is one of those Texans with dual identities – both Austinite and Citizen of the World. 

“My research has brought me across Asia, Australia, the Americas and Europe,” Brown said. Brown’s expertise has principally been focused on malaises– melioidosis and Chagas disease – infections most Texans would not be losing much sleep over.  

But the Texan climate is now exhibiting many of the attributes found in subtropical regions such as South East Asia, Australia and South America, where such diseases thrive. Cases of patients contracting emerging “tropical” diseases are increasing in the US. Chagas disease, in particular, is being spread throughout Texas principally by kissing bugs.

Local medics aren’t always trained to diagnose, let alone treat, Chagas disease and information on how it spreads, like through contact with the seemingly harmless kissing bug, is still not widely available to the general public. “Left untreated it can be fatal,” said Brown. 

Having spent most of her career focused on infectious disease, Brown is an expert in her field. But to accurately model the spread of Chagas disease in Texas required other skills sets, not to mention some unique thinking.

Clint Dawson has been modeling storm surge and flooding in the gulf coast region for decades – simulating every major hurricane from Katrina to Harvey. “My group is doing flood modeling in support of the disease modeling to understand how flooding impacts the spread of disease in coastal areas during and after heavy storm events,” said Dawson. 

Hurricane map
Peak surge during Hurricane Dolly in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas in 2008. Credit: Computational Hydraulics Group, Oden Institute. 

Now the UT team must develop new tools for integrating models for storm surge and disease spread. The added benefit of any Wellcome Trust grant though is the access it bestows upon its recipients to a global network of healthcare experts. In this instance, Brown is planning a trip to Cape Town in South Africa to meet other leading international scientists to help figure out how to make emerging disease and flooding more comfortable bedfellows. “While the COVID-19 pandemic has led to significant growth in infectious disease research in the U.S., we still lag behind when compared with other regions globally who deal with the emergence of new diseases as a matter of routine,” said Brown. 

“The Wellcome Trust grant will provide our study with vital access to leading researchers from around the world, something I am particularly excited about.” 

The London-based charitable foundation, founded in 1936, awarded just 20 of these grants. Highly sought after, they are looking for innovative approaches to healthcare research that will lead to impactful solutions. 

Talking about the importance of impactful, collaborative research is easy though. Forging worthwhile partnerships that can deliver real solutions is more difficult, particularly at one of the world’s largest public research universities. 

That’s why Katy Brown has been an enthusiastic supporter of UT Austin’s Planet Texas 2050 initiative since it was first launched. 

“I have always been interested in translational science that can have a real impact on communities, whether through the development of vaccines or simply raising awareness of the risks associated with emerging disease spread,” she said. 

“Planet Texas 2050 is a unique initiative and a perfect fit with my research ethos. It not only enables and nurtures new collaborative efforts on campus, but also encourages research focused on finding solutions for local communities most affected by the changing Texan climate.”     

Planet Texas 2050 Annual Symposium is currently taking place at UT Austin’s main campus and runs from Feb 28 - March 1. Register here.

Grand Challenge:
Planet Texas 2050