News Releases

October 8, 2019
Media contact:  Tiana Chantel Conner, 404-778-3711, tiana.chantel.conner@emory.edu

Jessica Shantha, MD Although the 10th outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this was the first in the eastern region.  In March 2019, Drs. Jessica Shantha and Steven Yeh traveled there with Univ. of North Carolina ophthalmologist Dr. Jean-Claude Mwanza (MD, MPH, PhD), to work with physician and Ebola survivor, Dr. Ian Crozier, in partnership with the World Health Organization’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) and the DRC Ministry of Health. Photograph courtesy of WHO.

Jessica Shantha receives $1.2M research grant to study ophthalmic surveillance for Ebola and viral hemorrhagic fevers

Emory Eye Center Uveitis and Retina specialist, Jessica Shantha, MD, has been awarded the Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award (K23) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) totaling $1.2 million over a five-year period. 

K23 awards provide individuals who have clinical doctoral degrees with intensive, supervised, patient-oriented research experience. The grants help support physicians such as Shantha as they move toward becoming independent patient-oriented researchers.  

Shantha recently completed the Emory Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) Program, funded by the NIH.  Her upcoming work will focus on learning more about ophthalmic disease in a viral hemorrhagic fever zone.

“We have significant gaps in our understanding of ocular complications and the potential for vision loss associated with emerging infectious diseases such as Ebola virus disease and Lassa fever,” Shantha explains. “My goal is to further define the ocular complications in Ebola virus disease survivors, explore eye disease in Lassa fever virus survivors, and validate that sampling the eye’s ocular fluid can help detect infectious disease.”

Shantha first became involved with research related to Ebola virus disease (EVD) survivors during her ophthalmology residency at the Emory Eye Center. She worked with uveitis specialist Steven Yeh, MD, on multiple clinical research projects. The most notable of these was the case of Ian Crozier, MD, a physician and Ebola virus disease survivor who developed aggressive, sight-threatening uveitis 10 weeks after he had recovered from the systemic illness. They sampled Crozier’s eye fluid and found – for the first time – live Ebola virus replicating there.

Since that time, Shantha, Yeh, and others have partnered with organizations in West Africa to screen over 1,200 Ebola survivors from 2015 to 2018. They have found that uveitis, a potentially blinding inflammatory eye disease, is the most common ocular complication in EVD survivors. Approximately 60 percent of Liberian EVD survivors with uveitis developed vision impairment and nearly 40 percent developed blindness.

Currently, we have insufficient knowledge about the disease course of EVD-associated uveitis, long-term visual acuity outcomes, and appropriate treatment for this sight-threatening disease,” Shantha says. “Our studies have raised questions about the eye’s potential to serve as a novel tissue site for infectious disease surveillance, especially in areas prone to hemorrhagic fevers such as EVD or Lassa fever. Whatever we learn about ways to prevent or treat these conditions has great public health significance.”

The grant award allows Shantha to work with a team of mentors who will offer their expertise and guidance in several areas: emerging infectious disease, surveillance systems, molecular diagnostics, uveitis, and epidemiology.  Her mentorship team is comprised of experts from the Emory Eye Center, the Emory Global Health Institute, Rollins School of Public Health, the F.I. Proctor Foundation, Tulane University, and Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health and Sanitation.

“After having the global health experience of working in West Africa, I can now fully appreciate the magnitude of the challenges in treating ocular inflammation in resource-limited settings,” Shantha says. “These experiences have challenged me to improve our knowledge about the infectious pathogens that are endemic in these remote settings, and to develop new approaches to diagnose and manage the diseases.

Findings from this study will impact screening and long-term management, contribute to policy guidelines, and, most importantly, prevent blindness,” she continues. “I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to make a difference in these survivors’ lives.”


Give Now Partnering for success

The Emory Eye Center’s work with Ebola survivors is done in conjunction with many organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), Partners in Health (PIH), Central Global Vision Fund, Lowell and Ruth Gess Eye Hospital, the Kissy United Methodist Church). Local connections in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo also are key to their efforts’ success.

Your donation may be made through Emory Online Giving or by contacting Karla Ruggiero, Emory Eye Center’s director of development.

 

 

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