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Student Study on Infant Wheezing in Honduras Provides New Insight into Infant Asthma

 Elizabeth Sillcocks and Jeanne Shi

Elizabeth Sillcocks and Jeanne Shi
School of Medicine Class of 2022

For their summer research fellowship, Elizabeth Sillcocks and Jeanne Shi, New York Medical College (NYMC) School of Medicine (SOM) Class of 2022, chose a subject with which Elizabeth had a great deal of personal experience. In the year leading up to medical school, Ms. Sillcocks spent several months in rural Honduras doing an internship with a doctor who ran a hospital there. It was during her time there that Elizabeth observed that there was a high volume of infants being treated for respiratory distress at Dyer Rural Hospital and also that her own asthma was worse.

“It was actually during my pulmonary unit that I started thinking about [the high-rates of infant asthma in Honduras] as a potential topic for summer research,” recalls Ms. Sillcocks. After speaking with Ms. Shi, the two decided to conduct a major literature review and develop their own unique study on respiratory illness in infants in Honduras.

“Wheezing is a sign of respiratory problems in general, and it’s very prominent throughout the world, but especially in the developing world,” says Ms. Shi. “While there have been studies looking at wheezing in different contexts, few have focused on rural Honduras. So we wanted to go to this unique environment and identify specific factors that were creating these respiratory problems.”

For their study, Ms. Sillcocks and Ms. Shi went through the entire Institutional Review Board (IRB)  approval process, ultimately receiving IRB approval in both the United States and Honduras. Last summer, they spent two months in Honduras, conducting a 45-question survey through in-person Spanish interviews in 16 rural communities in the Cuenca del Rio Cangrejal region of Honduras, with the goal of measuring socio-economic, environmental and genetic health factors which contributed to the wheezing in infants.

“This was an incredible research experience,” says Ms. Sillcocks. “We spent a lot of time hiking to the rural villages, spending time in local homes getting to know the people and culture while conducting our research.”

Infant Asthma Research Study in Honduras 
Students Study Infant Wheezing
in Honduras

Ultimately, after analyzing the survey results on 112 infants living in these rural communities, they found that environmental factors such as household exposure to mold and dust and an increased number of siblings living in the household presented the greatest risk of developing infant wheezing. “There are a lot of factors that have been well studied in literature around the world, such as maternal smoking and familial asthma, that have been shown to increase the risk of wheezing,” says Ms. Shi. “But in this very specific rural environment, those were not the factors that we found to have the most impact.”

“The community we studied was located in a very tropical region, the houses didn’t have windows or doors, and there was a contact exposure to the elements that you don’t find in many other places,” says Ms. Sillcocks.

As a result of their study, Ms. Sillcocks and Ms. Shi, who expect to submit their manuscript in the next few months, suggest that the communities they studied could consider preventative measures to reduce environmental exposure, such as installing windows and doors. “I think it’s a powerful thing,” says Ms. Shi. “Respiratory health is important globally as we found in our study. If talking about the United States, we would encourage greater examination of the interplay of environmental toxins, smoking and family history that people or young children are exposed to, even in an urban setting with well-known risk factors.”