Impacting kids' health across the globe

Conducting research isn’t just something Associate Professor Rodrigo Armijos finds interesting. It’s something he sees as vitally important to improve global health, especially in rural and underserved populations.

“It’s important to do research because it’s the only way to change policy. You’re not saying ‘I think;’ you’re showing numbers and results,” he says. “It’s our duty as a university to conduct research that is relevant to communities, and to show our students that there’s work to do.”

Rodrigo Armijos

Armijos’ career in research started with infectious diseases and shifted to vector-borne parasitic diseases when he began working on his doctoral degree and the lab was researching leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease which can cause unsightly and stigmatizing skin sores. He worked to study the disease in rural populations, and developed and tested a vaccine to help control the disease.

Following the completion of his doctoral degree, Armijos began work on a postdoctoral fellowship and started teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso during which time his research focused on environmental health issues, specifically how the environment can contribute to asthma. Here, he completed studies on asthma and respiratory health in Latino children before earning grant funding from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to study cardiovascular health as it relates to air pollution.

Armijos and his colleagues began looking at the effect of air pollution on the cardiovascular systems of low-income children in high traffic areas in Ecuador. Through this study, they found that urban children living in high traffic areas had a thickening of the arterial wall. This was the first study of its kind of children worldwide and resulted in a clear association between the environment and arteriosclerosis in these children.

Now, Armijos and his team are working to complete a study later this year investigating the relationship between air pollution in high traffic areas and the thickening of kids’ arterial walls. They’re following 300 low-income kids living in high, medium and low pollution Quito neighborhoods for three years and tracking their cardiorespiratory health. Although cardiovascular diseases are prevalent in adulthood, they typically start during childhood, so early prevention is crucial.

“The hypothesis is that we’ll see the kids in high pollution neighborhoods have faster progression of arteriosclerosis than kids in the low pollution areas,” he explains. “We’re also completing a similar study among Hispanic children in El Paso, Texas to see if we find a similar correlation.”

Armijos is quick to comment that his research is a team effort, and collaboration among fellow professors as well as students is essential to completing studies that will better the lives of people across the glove. He’s passionate about finding ways to improve the health of the most vulnerable populations.

“When we talk about the environment, low income people are the ones who suffer most. They often live in polluted, crowded areas,” says Armijos, who is director of the Global Environmental Health Research Laboratory at the School of Public Health. “They have to live wherever they can afford and usually that’s in crowded, polluted neighborhoods.”

Today, Armijos is circling back to his early research roots studying leishmaniasis.

“We just completed a study in El Paso in which we found leishmaniasis in stray dogs and cats, and wild mammals. This is important because there’s the potential for human infection,” he explains.

And, of getting back to the study of vector-borne parasites, Armijos simply says, “I love parasites.”

In the year Armijos has been at the School of Public Health, he’s been pleased with the collaboration and facilities for teaching and research, and is enjoying getting to know Bloomington

“Bloomington is a very nice city. I love it here especially with a family. I’m very happy,” he says. “There are good facilities, interdisciplinary work, and a lot of different research and colleagues working together. Working together is the best way to confront a problem. IU is a good place to do that.”