CHARLOTTE — A few years back, Vibhu Ambil was in his dorm room at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham talking with roommate Shiv Patel about a game of hide and seek in India with his sister, Bhavana, that landed them both in the hospital.
Vibhu and Bhavana, who were born in Charlotte but were attending middle school in India, were bitten by mosquitoes and both came down with Dengue Fever. Dengue causes high fever, severe headaches and a host of other flu-like symptoms that can sometimes lead to death. Almost 400 million cases occur each year around the world and there are four different strains.
“The symptoms were pretty immediate,” said Bhavana, who was 13 at the time. “(Vibhu) felt the symptoms first and he was rushed to the hospital. A few hours later, I felt the same symptoms. But they can’t diagnose you until you have had the fever for three days.”
“I was really sick and it was unlike anything else I had felt before,” said Vibhu, who was 12 at the time.
Both decided to return to school in Charlotte and for good reason.
“The main reason we moved back is because if you get another strain, it could be fatal,” said Bhavana, who is now 19.
As Vibhu, now 17, told the story to his roommate, the pair thought they should try and do their part in combating dengue.
So the Ambils, Shiv Patel and his brother, Shrey Patel, put their thoughts into action and founded SECURED – Support and Educate to CURE Diseases – in December 2016.
The international 501(c)(3) nonprofit aims to raise awareness for dengue fever and other mosquito-borne illnesses and foster scientific innovation through action-oriented educational programs and fundraising events.
“It was hard to gain traction in the beginning,” Vibhu said. “People didn’t know what dengue fever and other mosquito-borne illnesses were. But we were able to get people from my school and from [Bhavana’s] school, N.C. State, and it slowly grew.”
The group has grown to where there are several chapters in the United States and abroad. The organization’s board of directors is comprised of current or rising college students. Its professional advisory board has several professors and research instructors from universities such as Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill.
Vibhu will be a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was awarded a Morehead-Cain Scholarship. Bhavana will be a sophomore at N.C. State University this fall.
Education, which included distributing leaflets in foreign countries, was one of the first priorities of SECURED.
The group has hosted a summer camp to raise awareness of mosquito-borne illnesses. Camps include interactive lectures in the classroom and informative outdoor activities. The group’s interactions with leading scientists and researchers enabled them to devise the camp’s programs.
“We found here that a lot of people don’t know about mosquito-borne illnesses because they are not affected by it,” Bhavana said. “That gave us all the more reason to do it. We thought education was the main goal to tackle.”
The group hopes that the camps will increase interest among young students in global health.
“When we got it, it wasn’t that much of a global epidemic,” Bhavana said. “There still isn’t a complete cure.”
Now, the group is working on a mosquito trap. They currently have a patent pending for the self-sustainable trap.
The trap, which is called Unitrap, will be sold in areas like Texas and Florida, where mosquito-borne illnesses are a rising threat. From the profits made in these areas, the group will be able to subsidize the cost of the product when sold to developing countries where mosquito-borne illnesses are endemic.
“We are trying to develop a more effective mosquito trap,” Bhavana said. “We are trying to do that without using any chemicals. We are still doing some testing.”
SECURED has received several grants and they won a contest in which they received a check for $1,000. But more funds are needed. Visit www.secured-intl.org to learn more about the organization.