Faculty Research: Global Public Health

Epidemiologist Dr. Brett Bayles, assistant professor in Dominican’s Global Public Health program, says the coronavirus outbreak comes as no surprise to the global public health community.

“This was predictable,” he says of the outbreak that has spread from China to more than a dozen countries, including the United States.

Dr. Bayles studies emerging infectious diseases and the links between global environmental change and human health outcomes. His key focus is the emerging discipline of planetary health, which recognizes human health and environmental health are inextricably linked.

The current outbreak is the seventh coronavirus mutation to occur in recent years – with another notable example being SARS. “The latest outbreak was inevitable,” Bayles says.

“Many in the global health community have been warning that this would happen.”

Coronavirus outbreaks are the result of a pathogen “spillover” from animals to people — the locations for this type of event can be anticipated based on key social and ecological factors.

In this case, the factors include live animal markets (in which people and animals come into close contact), changing ecosystems (and human encroachment into forest ecosystems where previously unknown pathogens exist), and climate change.

“The coronavirus is a perfect example of why we need a public health workforce trained to understand, respond, and anticipate this type of health threat,” Bayles says.

Future virus mutations are inevitable, he adds, "but we have the ability to map where this is likely to occur again.”

Dr. Bayles, who received his MPH and PhD in Public Health Studies from Saint Louis University, believes the coronavirus outbreak will behave much like the SARS outbreak.

“It will spread, it will run its course, but it will not be the end of the world.”

However, another spillover event is likely.

“Expecting the unexpected is part of living on a rapidly changing planet.”

Dominican is an early adopter of the planetary health framework — the term only came into being about five years ago. Dominican already offers an undergraduate program in global public health, and is among only a handful of universities to offer the degree at the undergraduate level.

Recently, Dr. Bayles became a member of an interdisciplinary working group facilitated by the new Planetary Health Alliance at Harvard University, a global network of interdisciplinary scholars developing a set of principles for educating students in planetary health with the goal of identifying solutions to health risks posed by poor stewardship of natural resources.

At Dominican, Dr. Bayles involves his undergraduates in studies involving spatial epidemiology – the examination of disease and its geographic variations. Currently, Bayles and his students are examining the link between rainforest loss and an emergence of the Zika virus in Costa Rica. He believes this could be due to the mass clearing of tropical rainforests to make room for palm plantations as demand grows for palm oil.

Each summer, Bayles leads a research course in Costa Rica. Students observe palm oil plantations and note environmental conditions that make them suitable breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Back at Dominican, the Bayles lab uses satellite data from NASA to identify changes in landscape and forest cover, in order to measure rainforest loss over time. Using statistics and spatial modeling in what has become known as the “Space Lab,” Bayles and his students are relying on data to show the relationship between rainforest loss and emerging diseases like Zika and Dengue Fever in the Americas.

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