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Feature   |  Spring 2006

National defense

Bird flu one of many infectious diseases on scientists' watch

As for the threat of becoming ill from a zoonotic disease, experts say that proper hygiene is one of the best preventives. This includes frequent hand washing; regularly cleaning areas where pets sleep, urinate and defecate; and wearing protective clothing when cleaning pet areas and working around animals. Protective clothing should also be worn in areas where ticks, mosquitoes and other organisms that transmit disease are found.

Standing watch

Recently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security contacted Glickman to find out if veterinary surveillance had detected increased tularemia after an airborne form of the disease-causing bacterium was detected in the air near the National Mall in Washington , D.C.

Catherine Hill, public health entomologist, researches the tick genome, looking for ways to control the spread of diseases transmitted by the pest. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

The disease spreads after a tick takes blood from an infected animal and then feasts on other animals, including humans. The tularemia-causing microbe, Francisella tularensis, is on the CDCP's Select Biological Agents and Toxins list. Among other diseases caused by organisms that could become weapons are Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever and tick-borne encephalitic diseases.

Incidents of all of these diseases in the United States are quite low, says Purdue public health entomologist Catherine Hill, who is studying the tick genome to find ways to control the arthropod and halt the spread of pathogens it carries.

West Nile virus and Lyme disease previously were the two most common zoonoses in the United States, Hill says. U.S. cases of mosquito-borne diseases, including West Nile, encephalitic diseases and malaria, are sporadic. In other parts of the world, they are epidemic; malaria kills more people worldwide than any other disease.

Zoonotic disease-causing organisms continue to be a concern. “From a bioterrorism standpoint, it's pretty clear ticks could transmit a number of diseases that could be intentionally introduced and conveyed to people,” Hill says. “We need to be cautious and vigilant about all zoonotic diseases, especially where we have massive populations living in close proximity to each other and to the carriers of these illnesses.”

Sidebar Feature:

New bird flu strains develop from genetic mutations

 

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