Infectious Disease

Physician Todd Price of International Medical Outreach. Photo by Austin Price

Why It Matters  |  What We Are Doing Who Is Involved


Why It Matters

Infectious diseases know no borders. Increased air travel, international trade, urbanization and environmental changes all open up the world’s population to outbreaks of old communicable diseases and emergence of new ones. At the same time, disease microbes are becoming more resistant, so some of the medicines traditionally used to treat them have become less effective. An outbreak in one country can rapidly spread, affecting developing and industrialized nations alike, making disease surveillance and containment increasingly critical.

What We Are Doing

UNC-Chapel Hill has enormous global strengths in tracking, preventing and controlling both classic killers like malaria, TB and AIDS, as well as recently emerging diseases like avian influenza and SARS. UNC is ranked in the top ten of all U.S. HIV/AIDS programs, and our discoveries have made global headlines and won awards such as the “Scientific Breakthrough of the Year” award by the journal Science. UNC’s Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, is a pan-university Institute that was created to unify and bolster global health research, teaching, and service across UNC-Chapel Hill. Read More

UNC is leading the country in developing new epidemiological methods for studying infectious diseases. Innovations with practical applications are the hallmark of the infectious disease faculty at the Gillings School.  We are working to develop better methods for surveillance of malaria and drug-resistant malaria in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia.  We are tracking the path of malaria in war-torn countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in order to identify and control the factors responsible for its spread. We are collaborating with the private sector to use insecticide-impregnated fabrics to prevent tick- and mosquito-borne infections in U.S. forestry workers and mothers in Africa. In order to prevent the disproportionate number of deaths from SARS among people over 50, we are finding new vaccine platforms and drugs to treat any strain of the virus.

Often the biggest hurdle in infectious disease control is delivering effective prevention measures to vulnerable populations. We have tremendous strengths in understanding and addressing the psychological and social factors affecting disease transmission. In DRC, our faculty is training HIV-positive mothers as lay counselors, so that they can teach pregnant women how to use treatments that prevent virus transmission to their infants.  In South Africa, we are finding ways to keep young girls in school and reduce their risk of HIV infection. We’re also setting up microfinance in “camps” in Tanzania, where 15- to 19-year-old men socialize, so that financial and professional life goals can divert them from high-risk behavior.

Cervical cancer is the leading cause of death among women in many African countries. HIV-positive women are at much higher risk. We are working to prevent and screen for human papillomavirus to prevent cervical cancer via vaccination and diagnostic testing.

Our faculty members are working in China, South Africa and Kenya to increase cervical cancer screening among higher-risk women.  We are also leading the Cervical Cancer-Free America initiative in the U.S., a major effort to eradicate this eminently preventable cancer.

Faculty are building innovative vaccines and vaccine delivery sysstems against common human respiratory viruses that cause high morbidity and mortality in the developing world. Our labs were the first to demonstrate that noroviruses, which are responsible for 90 percent of epidemic nonbacterial outbreaks of gastroenteritis worldwide, evolve rapidly, resulting in new strains that emerge every two to three years. The discovery opened the door for norovirus vaccine development.

Our strengths are enhanced through collaboration.  In our efforts we work closely with UNC’s Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, as well as faculty in the UNC School of Medicine and other schools and institutes on campus.

Waterborne infectious diseases are major killers, particularly of children under five. But there is good news.  In sub-Saharan Africa, diarrheal disease mortality in children under five years of age has decreased by about 40% in the past 20 years, due largely to improvements in water, sanitation and hygiene.  Our work in water and sanitation to combat infectious diseases – from inventions that can test water quality in the field to major policy and practice changes – is described here.


Who Is Involved

Our leaders in infectious disease come from across the Gilling School, and include our world-class faculty, staff, post-docs and students. This overview only captures a fraction of the important research, teaching, and public service efforts in infectious disease at the Gillings School. Please explore the individual leader descriptions to learn more about their work.