When Gilbert Burnham was a student at Southern in the 60s, he couldn’t have predicted that his interest in biology would lead to a life waging battles against worms and insects. But his education, combined with a mission trip and a continent in desperate need, have called him to just that. Burnham’s story and research will be highlighted in the E.O. Grundset Lecture Series on October 25 at 8 p.m. in Ackerman Auditorium.
The first disease in the lecture is river blindness, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes symptoms such as rashes, nodules under the skin, and vision changes. More than 100 million Africans are at risk for this infection. The second disease discussed will be elephantiasis, which is characterized by the enlargement of body parts. Both of these filarial diseases are caused by parasitic worms and are transmitted by insects.
Burnham started studying river blindness as a hobby when he was a missionary at the Malamulo Adventist Hospital in Malawi. His interest, though, began when he was still in the United States.
“My first interest in this disease began when I was a biology major at Southern,” he said. “So the message for students is pay attention to those early interests and opportunities. Some may not go anywhere in life, but some of them just might.”
Today, Burnham chairs a committee that oversees treatment for both diseases using the drug Mectizan. This medicine is largely donated through a generous program.
“The Mectizan Donation Program is really one of the great public heath success stories,” said Burnham during a river blindness symposium presentation. “It is the benchmark for all other disease prevention efforts in the developing word.”
Burnham is also the co-director of the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at Johns Hopkins. He has experience in emergency preparedness and response, community-based health programming, and health information system development.
The E.O. Grundset Lecture Series, sponsored by Southern’s Biology Department, is named after Edgar O. Grundset, a popular biology professor who taught at the school for 35 years. The series was created in his honor in the late 1990s. All the lectures are free and open to the public. For a complete list of dates and times, visit southern.edu/biology.