This is the fourth short news article written by students, during the professional development class of Spring 2023, about each other's research.

Student Spotlight: Kareen Atekem

Written By: Stokes Aker

Have you ever had an itch from a parasite you can’t stop scratching? Maybe on your arm, leg, or whole body? What if the itch was caused by a parasite, and it could cause you to go blind? This disease, called river blindness, is a serious problem in Africa, with more than 99% of infected people in over 31 African countries. While this is truly horrifying, there is a concerted effort to eliminate the disease by 2030 in many countries.

Kareen Atekem, a PhD student in Ottar Bjornstad's lab in the Department of Entomology at Penn State, has helped discover new ways to eliminate this disease in Cameroon using innovative methods. River blindness is caused by a parasite that inhabits the skin of people. The parasite is transmitted from human-to-human by small biting flies – blackflies, that develop on substrates in rivers. These areas are commonly settled by people who carry out farming and fishing activities, thereby exposing them to these flies.  Kareen has used different concentrations of insecticide to determine the impact they have in controlling the black flies that vector these diseases, but it is no easy task - “It needs action, dedication, commitment and strong partnerships to eliminate this disease” Kareen mentions.

Dodging hippopotamuses and crocodiles, Kareen has measured the flow rate of large rivers in Cameroon to calculate the optimal dose of insecticides needed to control developing black fly larvae in substrates in the fast-flowing water. In addition, she has braved these perilous conditions to measure the mortality rate of fly larvae within the river and the adult fly population in the affected communities in the hope that she can develop better control strategies for this prevalent disease vector.

Kareen’s unique background in epidemiology and entomology has provided her the skills to help in the effort to eliminate this horrendous disease. This also hits close to home as Kareen worked closely in communities with affected people. While the disease is not lethal; it does condemn those with severe infections to a life of darkness and dependency on others. Subsequently, the disease has caused people to flee their homes and has disrupted their livelihood.  Her previous efforts were able to reduce black fly larvae in treated areas as well as fly populations and infection rates in communities. This has been a huge leap forward in eliminating the disease in Cameroon.

At Penn State Kareen plans to build off her previous research with this gruesome disease vector and develop models incorporating human, vector and ecological drivers on disease transmission and dynamics. These models will help inform health organizations on strategies to hit the elimination goal by 2030 and aid in sustaining current elimination rates. Playing her part, Kareen will help bring sight to the world!

This project was funded by Sightsavers ( You can view Kareen’s previous publications on this project here.