Universities mobilize against pandemic threat

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.”