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.”