Universities mobilize against pandemic threat


University-based research that helped authorities understand avian flu in 2006 could help mitigate the spread of swine flu in the United States, and higher-education officials are crediting the Centers for Disease Control for using social-networking tools to spread a message of caution.

Schools in three states were shut down earlier this week after authorities confirmed cases of influenza-related swine flu. The disease has killed more than 100 people in Mexico, health officials report. Similar to the 2006 outbreak of avian flu in countries worldwide, health authorities are looking to colleges and universities for expertise on how to treat the most recent influenza outbreaks.

Jeurgen Richt, a professor at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine with expertise in animal-related diseases like swine flu, said universities’ diagnostic tools, reams of research, and lab work can prove invaluable to government agencies hoping to contain an outbreak.

“We can offer vaccines, and if they don’t work, we must immediately develop new ones,” said Richt, who has worked at the National Animal Disease Center.

In fact, Richt said, higher-education research in recent years has shown the potential for influenza outbreaks that spread steadily through global travel.

“We warned that we should look in our own backyards,” he said.

Simulating virus outbreaks has been a major contribution from some of the premiere research universities in the country. Researchers from the University of California and the University of Maryland modeled a disease outbreak in an urban setting in 2004 and concluded that early detection and targeted vaccinations should trump widespread vaccination of entire populations. The researchers’ computer program–called EpiSims–showed the realistic spread of a disease like small pox using land-use and census data.

Public health experts said lessons learned during the avian flu outbreak in 2006 would serve campuses and the general public well this year. Thorough hand washing and early detection of influenza symptoms remain keys in stopping the virus before it spreads, especially within the confines of a college campus, experts said.

“Influenza is influenza, whether it’s seasonal, swine, or avian,” said Joe Suyama, a physician in the emergency department at Presbyterian Hospital in Pennsylvania, which is affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh. “The same precautions you use for one are usable for the other … and the planning efforts we put into place are being put into action right now, and it’s been a good test.”

Shimon Perk, a poultry expert at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Koret School of Veterinary Medicine who investigated avian flu when it spread worldwide in 2006, said university research has helped governments better comprehend the risk each influenza strain posed to population centers. University experts explored the potential mutation of a variety of avian strands, and swine flu will spur similar examinations, Perk said.

“Our investigation was tied to what was going on with the virus and what connection it might have with other viruses,” said Perk, who teamed up with researchers from several countries to combat avian flu three years ago. “We want to see if it can it lead to a deadly new virus. … And one has to be very, very careful looking at them. I sometimes say that this virus is smarter than us. It’s a very smart virus, and it’s very hard to predict what exactly is going on.”

Technology also has proven crucial in making the public aware of swine flu dangers and how to prevent its spread. The CDC is updating its Twitter page frequently during the outbreak, informing readers of “new recommendations on face masks and respirators,” hand-washing tips, and updates on the number of people with confirmed cases of swine flu. CDC officials also have communicated via social-networking giant Facebook–a strategy health officials said would help keep college students up to date on how to detect signs of swine flu and what steps to take in the aftermath.

“Whatever gets their attention, whatever gets to them the most is a good thing,” Suyama said. “Anything that can be injected into those media is going to catch [students’] attention.”

Ted Hogan, an instructor at Benedictine University in Illinois, where he teaches disaster management and public health, said the advent of social networking–now ubiquitous on college campuses–should be seen as a critical tool in reaching the masses during influenza scares like swine flu.

“Technology is extremely important in terms of keeping people up to date,” he said. “You always need to keep people informed … because the information is needed to change people’s behavior. You can’t just use one particular medium. You need to find a way of reaching lots of people quickly, not just by sending press releases out.”

Students, Suyama added, should be careful to follow only official agencies tracking swine flu–not anonymous blogs or other online outlets.

“Anyone can put anything out there; that’s sort of the problem,” he said. “It has to be good information.”

Higher education’s contribution to swine flu research might not be the only lasting impact of the current crisis. The spread of swine flu could prompt a major shift in research funding, Hogan said.

“The money that was spent [on researching influenza] has been very useful,” Hogan said. “I think this scenario really tells people that money spent on flu outbreaks is money well spent.”

Using the current swine-flu scare as proof, President Obama declared on April 27 that “science is more essential … than ever before” for the nation’s security, health, and economy–and he pledged to increase funding for scientific research to a level last seen during the space race to the moon, amounting to 3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

In interviews with eCampus News, public health officials and university experts said campuses provide a good example to governments for how to stop the spread of influenza and other communicable viruses. Campus health workers often isolate students who exhibit signs of the virus, as seen in late February at Sydney Sussex College in England. About 80 students were told to remain in their dorm rooms after being diagnosed with an illness that caused severe stomach cramping and vomiting. The students were in isolation for two days, according to media reports.

Keeping sick students away from their healthy peers, Suyama said, doesn’t mean academic schedules must be entirely interrupted.

“They can still do school work, and they won’t be at risk,” he said.

Links:

CDC Twitter page

Benedictine University

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Koret School of Veterinary Medicine

Note to readers:

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