BOWLING GREEN — When Mackenzie Perkins was growing up, it wasn’t unusual for her to kick off her shoes and go outside, especially if she was at her aunt’s farm.
“We were walking around barefoot and would be around animals,” she said.
The possibility of becoming a host to parasites was the last thing on the Hopkinsville woman’s mind, but a study she helped conduct was an eye opener. Perkins, a Western Kentucky University graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in public health, was one of eight students who went with parasitologist Cheryl Davis, a University distinguished professor in WKU’s Department of Biology, to see if soil-transmitted parasites were prevalent in eastern Kentucky.
The group worked with scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, led by pediatrician and CDC scientist Dr. Dana Woodhall.
“We did a study on their effect on humans. There is a pretty broad assumption that parasites are not a problem for those of us in the U.S. We want to determine if transmission is still occurring,” Davis said. “Most people don’t worry about kids having worms, but it’s part of the rural lifestyle in the South. Kids pick stuff up off the ground.”
While a low-level infection might go unnoticed, a higher level infection is a different matter, Davis said.
“Symptoms can range from abdominal cramps, gastrointestinal symptoms and skin reactions,” Davis said. “Parasites in young children can zap energy and growth and decrease their ability to learn. I think that’s the priority for (Dr. Woodhall).”
No studies have been conducted in southern Appalachia since the 1980s, when parasitic infections were still common, Davis said. A colleague in CDC’s parasitic division called her to see if she and some of her students would be interested in helping conduct a new study to see if parasitic worms — which include roundworms, pinworms, whip worms and hookworms — were still prevalent in the region.
“Most of the students are pre-med. Some of them had had coursework with me,” she said. “We participated in two studies. We still haven’t gotten all the results. I think medical doctors, public care and parasitologists will be interested in the results.”
The group went to Harlan and Greenup counties in April and June with the Kentucky division of Remote Area Medical services. RAM provides various health services to people in remote areas where they may have difficulty accessing care. The large mobile free clinics are staffed by volunteers.
“Our partnership with RAM gave us a population of people we could recruit to put in the study,” Davis said. “People will camp out in tents or sleep in cars the night before (RAM comes).”
Davis and the students talked to many of the patients. They collected stool samples and are looking for parasitic eggs.
“We were out there explaining what we were trying to do and ask if they would be interested in participating in the study. Sometimes we’d be out there at 3 a.m.,” she said. “The students were involved in recruiting people, explaining (the project) and collecting the samples. They worked right alongside the scientists from the CDC.”
Zachariah Claytor, a biology and pre-med major from Lexington, just finished taking Davis’ parasitology class before the trip and was excited to go.
“You’re open to it because you just learned about it,” he said. “I had never done anything with the CDC.”
Perkins went with the group to Greenup County. While some of the patients didn’t want to participate, there were some who were very cooperative.
“There were people who really wanted to find out if they have parasites and how they could get the results,” she said.
Public health agencies in the region will receive results. Those with positive results will be contacted and treated.