Business & Tech


Crime & Justice


Et Cetera

Related Links:

UMD Leads National Research Team on Avian Flu

Chickens / Photo courtesy Steve Durland
Chickens are being targeted for research. (©2005 Steven Durland)

By Mike Santa Rita
Maryland Newsline
Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005

A University of Maryland research team is joining forces with 17 other institutions around the country to try to answer an important question: How avian flu is transmitted.

Led by an assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s Department of Veterinary Medicine and funded by a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture,  the three-year research project has implications “both for the poultry industry as well as public health,” said Peter Johnson, national program leader for animal health at the USDA.

The research program aims to discover what it takes for avian flu to cross species at the molecular level, said its director, Daniel Perez. It also aims to educate farmers against interbreeding bird species to reduce the risk of disease. And it will help provide better tools to farmers to help them monitor poultry influenza.

The hope is also to develop new or alternative vaccines for the illness, Perez said.

“There’s never going to be a cure for influenza,” he said. “You cannot eradicate influenza. But I think you can realistically think of controlling it or preventing it in poultry of commercial importance.”

An avian flu outbreak in the Delmarva region last year hit two farms in Delaware and one in Maryland, resulting in the destruction of about 350,000 birds. It prompted a $500,000 cleanup operation, said Sue DuPont, communications director for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

The loss to the farming community was estimated between $3 million and $5 million, said John Brooks, deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

The avian flu strain that hit the Delmarva region was a low-pathogenic strain that is not deadly to humans, but public health officials were concerned that it could mutate into a highly pathogenic strain similar to the one that has killed people in Asia, Brooks said.  Farmers were tipped off to the disease when they noticed a higher mortality rate among their birds, many of whom were becoming feverish, Brooks said.

In response to the outbreak, Maryland poultry producers are asking state lawmakers this year to pass legislation that would conceal the identity of the farms infected with avian flu. They say they want to avoid embargoes by foreign buyers.

Brooks said his department would be closely monitoring Perez’s project.

“We will be looking anxiously at the outcomes at how we can better serve and protect the state of Maryland,” he said, adding that the consequences of the research move beyond Maryland. “This has national implications.”

The 18 institutions involved in the project – among them the Los Alamos National Laboratory at the University of California, the New York Department of Agriculture, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis and North Carolina State University-- will share responsibilities and areas of research.

Perez, a native Argentine who has been working on the virus since coming to the United States five years ago, said he personally will focus on how the virus is transmitted.

The virus transmits from chicken to humans easily, Perez said, but from human to human is another story. “The viruses do not transmit very well from human to human, and the question is ‘why?’ ”


Copyright © 2005 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

Top of Page | Home Page