Studies seek to slow flu spread

BY ARIKIA MILLIKAN
Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 9, 2007

Correction appended: The story incorrectly stated that researchers use anti-bacterial hand sanitizer. They use an alcohol-based sanitizer during research. Also, the program is recruiting at Alice Lloyd, Bursley Hall, West Quadrangle, East Quadrangle and South Quadrangle as opposed to the previously listed Bursley Hall, Couzens Hall, Alice Lloyd Hall, Betsey Barbour House, Helen Newberry House, East Quadrangle and Stockwell Hall.

Avian flu has been off the media radar lately, but experts say the likelihood is increasing that an influenza virus capable of spreading across a whole continent will emerge soon in the United States.

University researchers are working on two studies of ways to limit the spread of such a pandemic.

"Many experts agree we're getting closer to a pandemic than ever before," said Allison Aiello, an assistant professor of epidemiology. "But to be able to forecast and predict when it will happen is impossible."

In addition to developing plans to protect University students, faculty and staff in the case of an outbreak, Epidemiology Prof. Arnold Monto is heading up a new study that aims to protect Americans from deadly flu viruses.

The FLU-VACS study, which started October 3, will explore the pharmaceutical aspects of influenza virus prevention by giving participants a vaccine injection, a nose-spray vaccine or a placebo.

Monto said the vaccines being used aren't new, but testing their efficacy in a real world setting would allow researchers to understand why the vaccines work for some and not for others. The study could provide more insight regarding how to create vaccines that protect against more harmful strains of flu.

Although the seasonal influenza kills about 36,000 Americans a year - as compared to a total of 300 avian flu deaths worldwide since 1997 - Monto said the seasonal influenza isn't normally viewed as a threat by the general public.

"Nobody really cared about it until now because of the threat of avian flu," Monto said.

And although pharmaceuticals are a valuable tool in fighting influenza, researchers agree that they alone would not be enough. Aiello said that if an extremely lethal, contagious form of the flu did hit the United States, vaccinations and antiviral medications would not be available in the magnitude needed.

In the M-FLU study, which started last year, University researchers are testing flu-stopping methods that aren't based on the use of pharmaceuticals, like wearing facemasks and using alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Aiello, a principal investigator in the M-FLU study along with Monto, said simple procedures like these could be the real lifesavers in the case of a pandemic.

M-FLU researchers are rounding up a new batch of participants from Alice Lloyd, Bursley Hall, West Quadrangle, East Quadrangle and South Quadrangle to participate in the second year of the study.

Aiello said studying the virus in the close quarters of University residence halls could provide information about how seasonal flu and more lethal influenza strains like the avian flu could potentially be transmitted in heavily populated communities.

"If it works with seasonal, it will work against avian," Monto said.

Participants in FLU-VACS will bank $100 for donating three blood samples, and students in the M-FLU study will get $100 for donning a mask, $40 for being in the control group and an additional $25 if they get their throats swabbed.

The studies, funded by the Centers for Disease Control, involve the School of Public Health, University Health Service and University Housing.

Although Aiello said the results from last year's M-FLU study are not yet available, he said the study was successful and they were able to recruit many participants.

"The enthusiasm and excitement of the participants last year was a wonderful thing to see," Aiello said.