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Students get an inside look at infectious disease with Dr. Rebecca Shadowen

Students get an inside look at infectious disease with Dr. Rebecca Shadowen

Check out photos from the event on our Facebook page

More than 200 sixth graders from four area elementary schools strained skyward as teachers tossed rainbows of balloons into the air in the Downing University Center auditorium January 23. The urge to nab a bright balloon hit the previously still students as strong as a sneeze. But they didn't know they were grabbing symbols of the very germs released in such an expulsion. "Those of you who aren't holding a balloon are the luckiest ones of all," announced infectious disease expert Dr. Rebecca Shadowen as the audience quieted. "Everybody else, let's see what you've caught."

Green-balloon holders, a cold. Yellow-balloons holders, influenza. Red-balloon holders, tuberculosis.  

Infectious disease can travel that easily in confined spaces if we do not take proper precautions, explained Dr. Shadowen, the director of infection control and epidemiologist at two Bowling Green hospitals.

Her presentation was a part of Project GEMS (Gifted Education in Math and Science) —a partnership between The Center for Gifted Studies and Warren County Public Schools. The initiative focuses on generating interest and developing talent in disciplines related to science and math and encouraging careers in STEM disciplines.

Dr. Shadowen took Project GEMS students from North Warren, Lost River, Bristow, and Cumberland Trace elementary schools on an infectiously engaging journey through time and space, learning at every destination from an unfiltered airplane cabin to a lake in Asia. First the group traveled to the past to discover the epidemiological secret behind Napoleon Bonaparte's failed invasion of Russia in 1812.

"The fall of Napoleon was not because of an army," Shadowen said. "The fall of Napoleon was because of lice." In 2001, mass graves containing thousands of Napoleon's troops were discovered in Vilnius, Lithuania, the place where roughly 25,000 of the original half million men retreated. Infectious disease experts examined the remains and determined that louse-borne pathogens caused many of the army's deaths and contributed heavily to its defeat. "If not for that, we could all be speaking French right now," Shadowen said.

Any students unfazed by this revelation faced startling images and facts when the group returned to the present and traveled to the Far East to examine Japanese Encephalitis Virus and Elephantiasis. Store-bought insect repellant can prevent both diseases, which are transmitted by mosquitoes. But people unfortunate enough to contract either can face dire or disfiguring side effects. Dr. Shadowen demonstrated this with pictures that received audible gasps from the audience and became North Warren sixth-grader Seth Shockley's favorite part of the presentation. "Elephantiasis is something you don't hear about every day," he said. "You just see what could happen with us and this disease."

Bristow Elementary's Brianna Duke, 11, most enjoyed learning what actually did happen to those infected with smallpox before Edward Jenner developed a vaccine in the late 1790s. She grimaced at pictures of more modern cases and felt inspired by the World Health Organization's declaration that the disease had been eradicated in 1979. "I felt bad for those people," she said. 

Shadowen noted that the sixth graders' sympathy could some day turn to medical success as their generation works to tackle the infectious diseases still impacting the world today, such as tuberculosis and leprosy. So while the students' journey with Dr. Shadowen ended up back at Western Kentucky University in 2011, she noted, their future destinations were waiting expectantly ahead. "You never know what you could do until you try," she said.

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