Deep Connections

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With more than 60 percent of the world’s population living within 75 miles of a coastline, what impact do humans and oceans have on each other’s health? A UM research center links oceanographers and the medical community to find out—and help improve a sometimes troubled relationship.

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Sharon Smith, professor of marine biology and fisheries and co-director of the Oceans and Human Health Center, left, with Lora Fleming, a co-director of the center and a Miller School of Medicine professor of epidemiology and public health.

Sea, Sand, Septic?
At Virginia Key’s Hobie Beach not long ago, 20 bathers splashed, swam—then filled plastic jugs with water samples. Waiting for them back on shore were an environmental engineer who would analyze the samples for dangerous microbes and a physician/epidemiologist who would monitor the health of the bathers—volunteers in a research study—over the ensuing weeks to see if they came down with any skin, respiratory, or gastrointestinal illnesses.

Studies like this one form the nucleus of the University of Miami’s Oceans and Human Health Center, one of just four federally funded entities of its kind in the nation. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Miami-Dade County Health Department, and Florida International University also work with the UM center.

Interdisciplinary Insights
The collaborations have resulted in some enlightening discoveries. In the Hobie Beach study, for example, “We were able to show for the first time that in this basically non-point source environment—meaning there’s no direct sewage input—people got sick and reported illnesses from exposure to those waters,” says Lora Fleming, a Miller School of Medicine professor of epidemiology and public health who partnered on the study with College of Engineering environmental professor Helena Solo-Gabriele. Other studies have examined exposure to Staphylococcus aureas in South Florida coastal waters and the health risks posed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to storm-ravaged Gulf Coast communities.

Making sure that human health is part of the dialogue will help heighten attention to the problems faced by the world’s oceans, says Fleming, who co-directs the center with Pat Walsh, a professor of marine biology and fisheries at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “There are people who are very interested in the environment,” Fleming says, “but if it doesn’t have a human health connection, you’re just not going to get their attention.”

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