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Animal research critical in responding to infectious disease

Posted July 28, 2010 6:29 p.m. EDT
Updated July 28, 2010 9:34 p.m. EDT

— The animals at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine go about their day while researchers keep watch for what could be coming.

"We know it will happen again. It could be happening right now," said Dr. Barrett Slenning, a veterinarian and associate professor.

Slenning is referring to the next wave of influenza.

"We share much of the same metabolism. We share much of the same food and water. We share the same environment, so it's not surprising that we share the same kinds of disease agents," he said.

About 75 percent of all new infectious diseases in humans, such as the H1N1 flu pandemic last year, originate in animals. Initially called swine flu, H1N1 was linked to pigs.

Most of the flu strains are spread by water birds, such as ducks and geese.

They are what Slenning calls "silent carriers," because the birds are not sick themselves.

"In essence, all influenzas are avian influenzas," he said. "But they have jumped species over the last several hundred years. They've gotten into pigs, they've gotten into people."

Slenning is also one of the leading experts in the state on preparing for the next wave of disease.

His research is crucial to public health officials needing to prepare.

"We want to make every part of our response stronger. The partnerships are critical," said Megan Davies with the North Carolina Division of Public Health.

The state has a plan to deal with public health threats. It includes distributing vaccines, getting real-time information from hospitals and doctors offices regarding symptoms of sick patients and educating people on ways to prevent the flu, such as hand washing hands and coughing into a shirt sleeve.

But with H1N1 last year, there was little time to prepare any further.

In a normal season, flu strains can be tracked as they move across the globe, but H1N1 suddenly appeared in North America.

"I think one thing we've learned is the next big epidemic isn't necessarily going to come the way you thought it was going to come," Davies said.

"Where we were fortunate was that the actual severity of (H1N1) was not as bad as it could have been," she added. "The lines weren't fun, but the people in those lines got vaccinated, and we actually were able to prevent a serious third wave of illness."

Still, 109 people in North Carolina died last year from H1N1.

It's not that humans can get sick from such diseases from touching an animal – in fact, experts say the likelihood is greater that humans can spread disease to animals.

That's why the state is also concerned about their health.

For example, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services took extra measures last year to not only protect the wellbeing of fairgoers, but also the animals on exhibit.

Hand-washing stations were set up around the fairground and extra spacing was added between animal exhibits and the public.

At N.C. State, newborn calves, for example, are also kept in separate pens away from people and even each other.

"What we do is we protect them. We protect our environment and by doing that, we protect ourselves," Slenning said.

Influenzas have been mutating and being shared between species for hundreds of years, so trying to predict what's next, is not easy.

"We will have it happen again, but it's something like saying, 'I know California is going to have a major earthquake at some point,'" Slenning said. "But knowing that it's going to happen without an idea of when, how or where it's going to hit, really doesn't help us in preparedness."

The state also takes measures to prevent a sick animal from entering the food supply. Slenning said every flock of chickens sent to market in North Carolina is sampled for influenza. Before they leave the farm, chickens are subject to several inspections. Once a consumer makes a purchase, Slenning said, proper cooking can destroy any disease agents that are present.