AAAS session on anthropology and global health

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to speak at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington DC. I was part of a panel on anthropology and public health organized by anthropologist Cynthia Beall from Case Western Reserve University.

Kathleen Barnes (Johns Hopkins) presented research examining how allergic asthma may be a by-product of an evolved immunological defense against extracellular parasites. She showed some very interesting genetic epidemiological evidence that mutations associated with IgE (and the development of allergic disease, therefore) may be protective against schistosomiasis infestation. Her works is classic evidence for the hygiene hypothesis, to the extent that we focus only on allergic asthma. More importantly, though, it provides an all too rare view into what research into the primary determinants of asthma at the population level actually looks like. In other words, what changes (with some evolutionary probability) are occurring to shape the overall prevalence of asthma in a population. [Some great coverage of Kathleen’s talk]

My talk weaved together research on asthma over the past 15 years in India, Wisconsin and among Native Americans in the US Southwest and Alaska, to highlight variability in the diagnosis of asthma among physicians and in the management of the disease day-to-day by local populations. The Univ of Wisconsin issued a press release on my talk here, and Rachael Rettner, of MyHealthNewsDaily, wrote one of the better articles on my presentation.

Anna Di Rienzo, from the University of Chicago, summarized her work scanning the human genome for genetic adaptations to environments and climates. Many alleles she discovered overlap with those identified by recent genome-wide association studies, including polymorphisms associated with pigmentation, autoimmune diseases, lipid levels and type 2 diabetes.

Pete Zimmerman, from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, reported some very interesting findings from Madagascar, where something important is happening with the malaria parasite, P. vivax, to permit it to infect Duffy blood group-negative people, who have formerly been resistant to P. vivax infection.

Margaret (Peggy) Bentley drew from her incredible trove of filmed infant feeding observations from around the world to talk about how to improve growth and nutrition in different cultural and economic settings.

Unfortunately, Marcia Inhorn, who was supposed to be on the panel was unable to make it. She was scheduled to give a talk on assisted reproduction in the Middle East.

I really enjoyed the meeting and the time we got to spend together as a group. I love seeing anthropologists like my colleagues on this panel working deep in complex, meaningful fields, and yielding great progress through cross-pollination, unending curiosity and observation.

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