Texas Tech University

Effect of Wildfires on the Amazon Basin Ecosystems and Disease Outbreaks

Amanda Bowman

June 4, 2021

Jorge Salazar-Bravo received a Fulbright award and will conduct research in Bolivia during the fall semester.

The importance of the Amazon basin ecosystem cannot be understated. From its effect on climate to the plant life that's used in modern medicine and more, the over 2 million square miles of greenery spans eight countries and is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world.

However, over the last couple of years, large-scale wildfires have ravaged millions of hectares in areas clearly associated with a sharp rise in deforestation rates.  While the natural concern is for the lost biodiversity, there also have been outbreaks of zoonotic diseases – those that can spread from animals to humans.

Jorge Salazar-Bravo, an associate professor of biological sciences in Texas Tech University's College of Arts & Sciences and director of the International Center for Arid and Semi-Arid Land Studies at the Office of International Affairs, will study this phenomenon in Bolivia this fall after earning a prestigious Fulbright U.S. Scholar award.

Jorge Salazar-Bravo
Jorge Salazar-Bravo

Connecting the dots

How can wildfires influence outbreaks of zoonotic disease? Are these two processes even related? Finding those answers is part of the scientific aspect of Salazar-Bravo's Fulbright research proposal.

“We're going to be testing a couple of hypotheses on how wildfires may be promoting zoonotic disease outbreaks,” Salazar-Bravo said. “Part of the work to be conducted in Bolivia is to test hypotheses of how wildfires promote changes in the structure of mammalian communities, which in turn may be associated with the likelihood of zoonotic disease outbreaks.”

There also is an outreach aspect to Salazar-Bravo's project. While in Bolivia, he will teach courses to public health personnel at the national level.

“Workshops and short courses will include discussions of best practices on data collection, how you make it available for researchers, and what types of data you want to collect,” he said. “The idea is that the combination of the scientific project plus the interaction with public health personnel is going to strengthen the country's capacity to study the ecology of diseases.”

Why this research?

Salazar-Bravo was born in Bolivia and earned his bachelor's degree in biology from the Universidad Mayor de San Andres in La Paz. He came to the U.S. for his graduate studies and earned his doctoral degree in biology from the University of New Mexico.

In early 2019, Salazar-Bravo became a naturalized U.S. citizen, allowing him to apply for the U.S. Fulbright Scholar program.

“What I'll be doing in Bolivia this fall is the kind of research I conducted here at Texas Tech for the last several years,” Salazar-Bravo said. “I also have conducted similar research in Brazil and in Colombia.”

In the last couple of years, Bolivia has experienced outbreaks of diseases in the central part of Bolivia with some arenaviruses that have killed several people, and it's not understood why they are starting to show up now.

“We don't even know what the reservoirs for these diseases are,” Salazar-Bravo said. “The importance of the research is that it links environmental degradation with diseases emergence, at a time when Amazon rainforest and associated areas are being destroyed at an alarmingly fast pace. It was just about the right time to conduct this type of research.”

Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program

The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program offers diverse opportunities for U.S. academics, administrators and professionals to teach, research, conduct professional projects and attend seminars abroad.

The Office of International Affairs at Texas Tech has two faculty liaisons who work with Fulbright programs and help interested faculty and staff apply for Fulbright opportunities. One is Salazar-Bravo. The other is Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo, the associate chair and the C.R. Hutcheson professor of human development and family sciences in the College of Human Sciences.

“I started working in support of Fulbright programs here at Texas Tech even before I was able to apply for a Fulbright,” Salazar-Bravo said.

Fulbright programs are designed to forge lasting connections between the people of the U.S. and the people of other countries, counter misunderstandings and help people and nations work together toward common goals.

“Fulbright recipients really serve as ambassadors of the U.S. abroad,” Salazar-Bravo said. “It's a great program.”

When Fulbright recipients return to their institutions, labs and classrooms, they share their stories and often become active supporters of international exchange. As Fulbright Scholar alumni, their careers are enriched by joining a network of thousands of esteemed scholars, many of whom are leaders in their fields.

“If you're interested in making a difference, spending some time abroad and serving as an ambassador of the U.S., Fulbright is a wonderful program to do that,” Salazar-Bravo continued. “There are several things going on with the program here at Texas Tech. I'm really happy to be a part of it.”

Click here for more information on the Fulbright programs and workshops offered at Texas Tech.