There have been no confirmed human cases of avian influenza in humans in the United States. After a recent grant, CSU will now contribute to keeping it that way.
Researchers at CSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences were recently awarded $2.6 million from the Centers for Disease Control to study the transmission of avian influenza, or bird flu, to humans.
Richard Bowen, a professor of biomedical sciences at CSU, is the principal investigator for the three-year project.
He explained that the bulk of infectious diseases are zoonotic, or transmitted between animals and humans, and that medical professionals need to come together to fight this disease.
“One goal is to bring veterinary medicine and human medicine together, so that we can complete the story,” he said.
According to the World Health Organization, a strain of avian influenza that has been transmitted from birds to humans, known as H5N1, has killed 158 people worldwide since it was first diagnosed in China and Vietnam in 1997.
Researchers involved in the study will track how birds enter the western United States as well as how they interact with humans.
Bowen has selected several qualified individuals to work together in three different branches: A surveillance branch at CSU, which is responsible for early detection of avian influenza, a branch in Indonesia and a branch at the Children’s Hospital in Denver.
Kristy Pabilonia, an assistant professor and avian disease diagnostic veterinarian, will coordinate the surveillance branch at CSU.
Pabilonia explained that they plan to work with commercial poultry groups such as egg layers and backyard flock owners such as 4-H members and other individual bird owners.
“We basically pioneered backyard flock surveillance for the state of Colorado,” she said. “We eventually hope to look at birds from other places and other countries.”
Backyard flocks are poorly monitored for health and the people who take care of them don’t usually take the necessary precautions of wearing gloves and other protective clothing.
Pabilonia explained that these bird owners travel around the region while taking their birds to different bird shows. During this transportation, infected birds could easily spread strains of influenza.
“We work really closely with all the owners and most of the testing is done for free,” she said. “If they agree, then they become a certified flock.”
Pabilonia said that her branch has found birds in Colorado with less harmful influenza in their testing, but have never found one with the highly infectious H5N1 strain.
She also noted that avian influenza can infect all varieties of poultry including chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, pigeons, doves and game birds such as pheasants.
The majority of the human infections have occurred in Indonesia and Vietnam, but while scientists in these areas have attempted to create vaccines for the various strains of avian influenza, they have not been completely successful.
Bowen explained that there are several disadvantages of using vaccines for avian influenza.
“Influenza is the classic troublemaker,” he said. “It changes; there are several different types and the virus tends to mutate with some frequency.”
Pabilonia also questions the reliability of avian flu vaccines.
“The use of vaccines is very controversial,” Pabilonia explained. “Although they provide some immunity, there is not one that will be able to prevent 100 percent of the disease.”
She explained that the use of vaccines encourages mutations to “outwit” the vaccine and therefore creates partially immune poultry. If this happens, then the birds will appear healthy, but would still be able to spread influenza to other birds and humans.
“It would be great if someone could create a vaccine that actually worked,” Pabilonia said.
Staff writer Brandon Owens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bird Flu Statistics:
/ There were only four cases and four deaths in 2003
/ Cases and deaths are rapidly increasing; there were 109 cases and 74 deaths in 2006.
/ The most recent human case occurred in Egypt in a 39-year-old woman, whose infection was confirmed on Oct. 11. She died on Oct. 30.
/ The virus not only affects the respiratory tract, as in milder forms, but also invades multiple organs and tissues.
/ So far, there have been no human-to-human transfers of avian influenza.
Courtesy of the World Health Organization