Since being launched four years ago, the UW Department of Global Health has grown to more than 50 faculty and 350 students. More than 900 applicants compete annually for 35 graduate slots and less than two dozen health statistics fellowships. And while state budget woes have forced cuts in other departments, funding from the Bill...

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Questions like these don’t pop up in your average tavern trivia game:

What parasitic disease is caused by the bite of a female sandfly?

Is tobacco use decreasing in the developing world?

But this is Global Health Trivia Night, and a roomful of University of Washington graduate students and staff are matching wits on topics from bird flu to bat-borne rabies. Victorious teams pump their fists. Losers groan.

The contest is sponsored by the university’s newest academic branch — the Department of Global Health — where enthusiasm abounds for tackling medical problems around the world. Since being launched a scant four years ago, the department has grown to more than 50 faculty and 350 students. More than 900 applicants compete annually for 35 graduate slots and less than two dozen health-statistics fellowships.

And while state budget woes have forced cuts in other departments, funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has allowed Global Health to rapidly expand its course offerings.

“There is something huge happening here,” said department vice-chair Dr. Judith Wasserheit.

A generation wired into the wider world has embraced the cause of health for all with a fervor that rivals the idealism of the 1960s. At the same time, an unprecedented influx of money to tackle diseases common in developing nations has revitalized what was long a scientific backwater. More than 70 U.S. and Canadian universities now offer some kind of global-health program, triple the number five years ago. And students continue to clamor for more.

“We’re really seeing the birth of a new academic field,” said Dr. Michael Merson, director of the Duke University Global Health Institute.

Universities are clearly following the money. Since 1990, worldwide funding to fight AIDS in Africa and control diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis has nearly quadrupled to $27 billion a year. Billions more have flowed from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for research on vaccines and drugs. The UW Global Health Department owes its existence to Gates’ largesse, in the form of a $10 million startup grant and $20 million endowment.

The dollars pouring into global health translate into contracts for nonprofits, grants for laboratory scientists and demand for health-care workers. Universities are the logical places to prepare people for those jobs, said Dr. King Holmes, the longtime AIDS researcher who chairs the UW department. It also makes sense for universities to do the studies needed to figure out what works in global health and what doesn’t.

But logic and money are only part of the picture. Administrators say they’ve been stunned by students’ passion. “The degree of interest is just overwhelming,” said professor and associate chair Steve Gloyd.

The department’s initial degree offerings — a master’s in public health and a doctoral degree focused on diseases of the developing world — draw more than 10 applicants for every opening. Undergraduate students were so unhappy to be left out they petitioned the department to offer a global-health minor. Launched this year, the minor is expected to swell the ranks to 700 students. An undergraduate major is likely to follow.

Sharper world view

The health woes of people on the other side of the planet do not seem as remote to young people today as they might have to earlier generations, said Stan Biryukov, 19, a Bellevue High graduate who was the first student to sign up for the minor.

“With the amount of information we’re exposed to, it’s hard not to see what’s going on in the world,” he said. That knowledge is coupled with optimism and a finely honed sense of social justice.

Why should women in Southern Sudan be more than 100 times more likely to die in childbirth than women in the U.S., wonders Biryukov, who researched the disparities for his Global Health 101 class. And why shouldn’t he be able to make a difference?

“There’s a lot I still need to learn,” he said, “but I think improving health is possible.”

Biryukov is aiming for both a medical degree and public-health training, which he hopes to leverage to help entire populations in the developing world, not just individual patients.

Second-year medical student Claudia Diaz, from Salem, Ore., intends to put her global health training to work here at home. A Peace Corps stint at a West African clinic and an internship in a Peruvian outreach program for gay sex workers helped the 33-year-old develop skills that will be valuable in the low-income neighborhoods where she intends to practice.

“I’m not going to be in an office in Beverly Hills,” she said with a laugh.

Broad interest

Idealism is nothing new at the UW. The school has long ranked at or near the top of the list in turning out Peace Corps volunteers. The universitywide love affair with global health reflects a broader social awareness, partly fueled by celebrities such as Bono and Bill Gates and writings such as “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” Picked as UW’s first “common book,” the story of Dr. Paul Farmer and his fight to bring modern AIDS treatment to Haiti was distributed to all incoming freshmen and incorporated into classes in 2006.

The roots of the new department existed in faculty and staff who have been plugging away for decades on infectious-disease research and programs to boost health in the developing world.

Now, faculty across campus are as eager to get in on the act as their students.

From law to engineering to economics, more than 250 faculty have ties to the Global Health Department, either through teaching or research. One new program couples atmospheric sciences and epidemiology to help predict the way climate change will affect the spread of disease. Another brings together experts in pharmacy and business to strengthen the supply of medicines in the developing world. The Anthropology Department’s enrollment doubled after it added a global-health track that explores the way culture, society and biology shape health and health care around the world.

Professions outside the traditional bounds of global health are eager for workers well-versed in global affairs, Holmes said. “As we become an increasingly globalized economy and culture, global experience … is becoming very important.”

Among the department’s programs are several aimed at educating and training scientists, health-care workers and leaders from the developing world. The department also recruits graduate students from abroad.

“You get to hear stories from all over the world,” said Agya Mahat, 29, who gave up a job as a dentist in her native Nepal to enroll at UW despite her family’s concerns. “They told me I was gambling with my career.”

But the UW program, including an internship working with Masai women in Kenya, has opened her eyes to the many factors, from poverty to nutrition and family dynamics, that affect health.

She’s also been introduced to distance learning and other approaches she hopes to apply when she returns to Nepal, with the goal of improving maternal and child health.

“After being here two years,” she said, “it feels like I was living in a bubble earlier.”

Getting out of Seattle

One of the department’s biggest challenges is finding ways for students to gain experience working abroad, Wasserheit said. “You can’t train people in global health and have them just sit in Seattle,” she said. But it’s also not acceptable to create feel-good internships that don’t benefit the local people.

With only enough funding to cover about a quarter of students who work abroad, those who can’t afford to pay their own way lose out.

Another worry is the fate of federal funding for global health programs as Congress seeks to slash the deficit.

But on Global Health Trivia Night, the biggest source of angst was wrong answers.

Most of the teams knew that tobacco companies have stepped up marketing in the developing world, where smoking is on the rise in many countries.

But fewer could name the disease spread by those pesky sandflies: The ulcerating skin infection called leishmaniasis.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com