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Johns Hopkins runner helps city's efforts in preventing Zika virus

Lara Gaffney, an intern with the Department of Environmental Health, discusses a Zika prevention project she's working on with the city's Health Department. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

As a long-distance runner for the Johns Hopkins track and field team, Lara Gaffney has chased down foes before. This summer, the 21-year-old soon-to-be senior helped the Baltimore City Health Department run down a more elusive opponent: mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus.

In early June, Gaffney began volunteering in the department's division of disease control on a project to proactively address the Zika virus in Baltimore. After traveling to South Africa last summer and Uganda in January to encourage HIV-infected patients there to seek treatment, she decided to stay closer to her hometown of New Rochelle, N.Y., this time.

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"I knew that because I had spent time in the public health area abroad, I really wanted to do something in Baltimore and do something with infectious disease and give back to the community," she said. "It was an untouched area that I really hadn't studied that much about."

Gaffney's work with the health department is especially timely with the Summer Olympic Games going on in Rio de Janeiro, where athletes and fans have expressed concern about contracting the Zika virus, a disease spread primarily by mosquitoes that has contributed to birth defects in babies born from pregnant women bitten by infected mosquitoes.

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that it will distribute funding to bolster efforts to protect Americans from the virus. Of the $60 million, Maryland, which has recorded 42 cases of Zika, will be awarded $1.4 million.

Mary Beth Haller, assistant commissioner of environmental health in Baltimore, sais last month that the department had received 111 complaints of standing water this year, which was a sizable increase from last year's 80 complaints. Haller said the agency has tried to raise awareness of Zika to residents seeking to travel to countries affected by the virus or returning from them.

"They may be thinking about Zika when they're in those airports and in those countries," she said. "But when they come in, Zika is behind them as far as they are concerned. They may not even develop any symptoms, and if they were to develop symptoms, it might not be until after they get home, and then they pass it on to their significant other or the general public by being outside and getting bit by more mosquitoes."

Gaffney, who began working with the health department via Johns Hopkins professor Darcy F. Phelan-Emrick who is also an epidemiologist for the department, helped create Zika prevention packets for pregnant women in Baltimore, set up traps to capture and study mosquitoes, and canvass neighborhoods to distribute information.

Gaffney was also instrumental in identifying 135 small shops within the city limits that sell tires. The department is planning to send mailers to the owners of those shops informing them of properly caring for tires, which are often homes for standing water and mosquito nests.

"People have been very pleased with how proactive the health department has been," Gaffney said. "Several people I've spoken to have said, 'Wow, I'm so happy that the health department is coming to my door with this information.' We want to be as proactive as possible, but it was good to hear that people were happy with that."

Haller said Gaffney's assistance was welcomed by the short-staffed agency.

"Having Lara here to be able to do the somewhat tedious tasks related to Zika that are time-consuming has been extremely helpful, having someone to actually do that so that some of the staff isn't completely diverted from the other work that we are doing," Haller said. "I would say her public-health contribution has been every single person she has spoken to and the work she's chasing down now."

Gaffney's decision to work as an unpaid employee comes as no surprise to her track coach Bobby Van Allen, who said her compassion for her teammates made her an easy choice for captain of the cross country team this fall.

"That completely goes in line with her personality," Van Allen said of Gaffney, who finished fourth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase event at the Centennial Conference championships May 8. "She's all about building friendships and relationships and the welfare of others. There's never been a time when she was afraid to bring to my attention someone I needed to reach out to, especially since, with so many men and women on the team, it's hard for me to catch everything. She's been there to reach out to other girls."

Gaffney, who found time to train by running in the morning before going to the office or in the evening after work, is majoring in public health and has applied to Johns Hopkins and Emory University to pursue a master's degree in infectious disease control and prevention.

Gaffney, who would like to work for the CDC or for a public health agency abroad, said she enjoyed working for the health department.

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"I really felt like going into this year, I hadn't done enough in Baltimore," she said. "I'm not originally from Baltimore, but I really wanted to do something with public health in Baltimore and do something with the community."

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