West Hempstead High School senior shares project on zoonotic diseases


Growing up, West Hempstead High School senior Mary Penson often visited her father, Dr. Harry Penson, at his veterinarian office. It was interesting, she said, to hear about zoonotic diseases, which are transmitted from animals to people. For a re-cent service-learning project in government class, Penson focused on zoonosis, and she presented her findings on zoonotic diseases at the West Hempstead Public Library on Jan. 5.

“Many of them didn’t know about the diseases, so when I held my presentation, they were happy to learn about it,” Penson, 17, said. “I’m glad that I was able to make people in the community more aware.”

Library Director Regina Mascia said that she was one of several people in the community who learned about zoonotic diseases. “I thought it was a great topic,” Mascia said. “It’s great that we have people in our community that can contribute and share this kind of information.”

In the U.S., six of every 10 known infectious diseases contracted by humans are spread by animals, ac-cording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Penson’s father, a veterinarian for 34 years, said that many people are shocked to hear about some of those diseases, such as toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that is found in cat feces and contaminated food.

“Because of this, pregnant wo-men have to be made aware of it the most because it can endanger their fetus,” Mary said. “Pregnant women are usually discouraged from handling litter pans.”

She said that it took a few weeks to complete the project, and while many of the diseases were new to her, she learned that the bulk of them are preventable with practical precautions. “Washing your hands, practicing good hygiene and keeping pets up to date on vaccines are some of the basic tips that I shared at my presentation,” she said.

Her father said that he deals with many of the issues regularly with his patients, and that it is important for owners of new pets to have fecal tests done immediately. “Especially with internal parasites with new puppies from shelters, pet stores or breeders, it’s not uncommon to have parasites,” Dr. Penson said. “People love kissing their puppies and kittens, and I always advise them to wait until you get that cleared test.”

Mary said she hoped that, through her presentation, people will be more mindful as they handle their pets. She added that although she doesn’t plan to follow her father’s career path, she will remember the lessons he shared during this project.

“I was thrilled with her project,” her father said, “and I’m just proud that she chose to do a project in my field of work.”