Dr. Thomas Unnasch is a distinguished professor at the University of South Florida's College of Public Health. His lab currently focuses on initiatives and research surrounding vector-borne diseases. His long and impressive career is marked by impactful public health initiatives and is characterized by his passion for people. Taking charge in implementing community based research and policies both locally and abroad, Dr.Unnasch has worked to provide greater access to equitable healthcare and health education resources for many people.
In the 1990's, during his time in Africa working on early diagnostics and vaccines for river blindness (onchocerciasis) , Dr. Unasch witnessed the harrowing image of a village ravaged by this disease. He recalls observing as small children used sticks to lead their parents who were suffering from river blindness. Without access to treatment or testing, villagers were forced to suffer from this life-altering illness.
Dr. Unasch references this experience as the moment his life changed direction, as he found his calling to eliminate this disease and empower communities. Dr. Unasch has dedicated his life to treating infectious diseases and has since developed innovative technologies, improved PCR testing, led initiatives to train and educate researchers and organizations on infectious disease responses, and established labs in countries across Africa and the Americas. As a result of his work, river blindness is no longer a leading cause of blindness in many of the countries plagued by this virus. River blindness has been largely eliminated in Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, Brazil, and various countries in Africa such as Mali and Togo.
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr.Unnasch responded to this global health crises by utilizing his lab as a COVID-19 testing center for the greater Tampa Bay Area. He further combated this outbreak by advising communities on how to respond to the pandemic. During this time, Dr. Unnasch utilized disease tracing and diagnostics to direct discourse surrounding policy responses to the pandemic, as well as to keep citizens informed and educated on the evolution of the disease.
Throughout his career, Dr. Unnasch has testified to the ability of communities to come together and support each other during health crises. He recounted a story of an organization donating life changing medication to communities in Africa, free of charge. However, this initiative was met with the challenge of costly and laborious distribution processes. To overcome this obstacle, a system was developed to elect community members to volunteer their time to distribute these medications. This program proved to be extremely effective and demonstrative of the progress that can be made by involving the community in the process of fighting viral disease. This story speaks volumes to the compassion that arises from the restoration of resources, education, and agency to communities.
Despite his many years of compassionate dedication to his field of work and to people across the globe, Dr. Unnasch is dedicated to continuing his work fighting infectious disease. He is hopeful to see through the eradication of river blindness across all affected regions. We thank Dr. Unnasch for his groundbreaking work and his commitment to improving the lives of people across the globe!