Scientists Go to Iowa for Bird Flu School

The Associated Press
Monday, June 19, 2006; 6:52 PM

AMES, Iowa -- Two dozen scientists from around the world gathered in high-tech classrooms and laboratories in central Iowa on Monday to learn how to diagnose avian influenza and control its spread.

The scientists from 19 countries including Argentina, Mozambique, Lebanon and Taiwan, were taking part in the Avian Influenza Diagnostic Training Course at Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. The five-day training course, a collaboration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and ISU, was the third of its kind in the past six months. The USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service provided most of the funding for the event.

Dr. Dennis Senne, a poultry specialist with the USDA's National Veterinary Services Lab in Ames, said that, in addition to sending experts to other countries, the course is an indication of the government's commitment to working with international partners on bird flu preparedness.

"To protect our nation, it's critical that we work in concert with our many partners overseas ... knowing that anything that we can do to contain this disease and virus overseas will benefit us and help to protect both the animal and human health here in the United States," he said.

Ames is a hot spot for avian influenza training and testing, and home to the NVSL, the laboratory that serves as the final confirmatory laboratory that will determine whether highly pathogenic bird flu virus has arrived in the United States.

Known as the H5N1 strain of bird influenza, the virus spread from Asia, where it's blamed for the slaughter of 200 million birds, to Africa and Europe. The virus has killed at least 124 people, most of whom have had close contact with infected birds. Scientists caution that the virus could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people and could spark an epidemic, but no one knows whether it will reach the U.S. or develop into a strain of deadly flu that can be transmitted easily by humans.

The training comes as bird flu experts voice concerns that lax testing and awareness efforts abroad could weaken links in keeping the virus under wraps, and as some countries are criticized for not offering more help.

Senne said the USDA has been offering assistance for years, characterizing the first strain of H5N1 virus, isolated in Hong Kong in 1997.

"We have been providing some diagnostic systems to these countries since that time," he said. "It's not something that we're doing that's new."

The scientists are learning how to isolate the H5N1 virus, how to collect, preserve and ship samples. They also are studying different molecular and serologic testing techniques.

Senne said the scientists would be given proficiency tests on what they learned.

"The primary purpose is not to make them an expert in one week ... but I think we show them enough of these techniques that they can make the decisions which of these are going to be most applicable for their laboratory environment," he said.

Dr. Anna Rose Ademun Okurut, with Uganda's Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, said the training will help her improve testing capacity in the eastern African country, which she said is at high risk for bird flu.

"Uganda is vulnerable because, if you look at the global trend of migrating birds, we lie in the migratory routes," she said.


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