Global health

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1960s photo of public health workers examining little girl's smallpox vaccine scar

Smallpox Cousin Synthesized in Lab, Raising Bioterrorism Concerns

July 17, 2017

The Washington Post reports that scientists in Alberta have "used commercially available genetic material to piece together the extinct horsepox virus, a cousin of the smallpox virus that killed as many as a billion human beings before being eradicated." While the lead researcher's efforts are "aimed at developing vaccines and cancer treatments," his achievement led the former head of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Tom Frieden, to assert "the need to monitor more closely 'dual-use' experiments — research that could be used either for protective purposes or, in theory, to create a deadly pathogen." Consortium collaborator Alta Charo, who currently serves on the National Working Group for the LawSeq project, says "we are still struggling with how to manage the dual-use dilemma. How do we get the benefit of the research without the risk of it being turned against us?" Meanwhile, other researchers emphasize the greater threat of naturally evolving pathogens such as Zika and Ebola. Michael Osterholm, director of Consortium member the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), notes another aspect of the horsepox synthesis: “How many other people have done it[?] We never thought or expected it to come from a place like Alberta. It's not one of the leading universities in the world for microbiology and synthetic biology. If it came out of there, how many other places like this are also doing the same work right now?” Osterholm continues, "This has been the storm coming for years. We’ve known about it, but unfortunately, we’re not ready."

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Pregnant woman with three sets of arms around her

Surrogacy Demand Surges Despite Resistance

May 16, 2017

Gestational surrogacy has been available in the US since at least 1976, and over the past 40 years an increasing number of people have sought women willing to carry a baby to term for them. According to an article in The Economist, "Though the number of children born globally each year through surrogacy is unknown, at least 2,200 were born in America in 2014, more than twice as many as in 2007" – despite calls by feminists and religious leaders to regulate or ban the practice outright because they consider it exploitative. Among the reasons is the lack of clear regulations across state and national lines, which allows those who want to hire a surrogate to move their search to different countries when they confront obstacles; the article notes, "rather than ending the trade, tighter rules are simply moving it elsewhere." Read the entire piece here

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Julie Gerberding

All-star Panel Charts a New Course for Disaster Preparedness

April 17, 2017

Last week, the Consortium hosted the final of three lectures on Emerging Diseases in a Changing Environment, featuring Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, MD, MPH, FACP. Dr. Gerberding is Executive Vice President at Merck and the former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In her talk, she described what she's learned about emergency preparedness through responses to anthrax, SARS and other biothreats, and proposed steps that should be taken to improve such responses. Dr. Gerberding was joined by Prof. Amy KircherDrPH (Director, Food Protection and Defense Institute) and Prof. Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH (Director, Center for Infectious Disease and Policy). In a lively conversation, they discussed pandemic threats and responses and from the perspectives of their disciplines, ultimately arriving at the importance of advance planning by collaborations such as the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to contain crises before they balloon out of control. A video of the entire event can be viewed here. Videos of the first lecture in the series, "Finches, Dogs, Lions and Zika: An Ecologist Looks at Emerging Disease" by Prof. Andrew Dobson, DPhil, can be viewed here. The second, "Ending the Pandemic Era: Science at the Animal-Human-Environmental Interface" by Jonna Mazet, DVM, MPVM, PhD, can be viewed here

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Book cover -- Deadliest Enemy

New Book by Consortium Colleague Offers Strategies for Emerging Diseases

March 22, 2017

Renowned epidemiologist Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of Consortium member the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), has published a new book laying out how humanity can protect itself against catastrophic infectious disease and pandemic. In Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs, Prof. Osterholm applies knowledge and strategies acquired during his fights againt bioterrorism, pandemic influenza, Ebola and other public health emergencies. His goal? To describe "the latest medical science, case studies, policy research, and hard-earned epidemiological lessons. . . we need to develop if we are to keep ourselves safe from infectious disease." You can view a lecture delivered yesterday by Prof. Osterholm on the subject of the book here. He will be moderating a lecture on a closely related topic, Combating Microbial Terrorists, by former head of the Centers for Disease Control Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH, on April 13; register to attend or view the webcast here

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Flock of turkeys

UN Tackles Antibiotic Resistance

September 22, 2016

A new declaration by the UN General Assembly is intended to slow the spread of antibiotic-resistant organisms. According to National Public Radio, the resolution "requires countries to come up with a two-year a plan to protect the potency of antibiotics. Countries need to create ways to monitor the use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, start curbing that use and begin developing new antibiotics that work." While concerns about "superbugs" are widespread in public health circles, it took data showing the potentially catastrophic economic implications of antibiotic resistance to spur this action. One expert, Ramanan Laxminarayan, is optimistic about the outcomes of this campaign, comparing this effort to a similar one begun by the UN about the HIV pandemic; the article notes, "since 2004, there has been a 45 percent drop in AIDS-related deaths in countries supported by global HIV campaigns."

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Olympic logo made out of mosquito silhouettes

Despite Zika's Spread, Experts Caution Against Overreaction

August 5, 2016

The confluence of the Zika outbreak in Latin America and the Rio Olympic games has led some athletes to make a tough decision: forgoing competition to avoid the disease. This week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed homegrown transmissions of the virus in the US. These developments lead to questions about how significant Zika is as a public health hazard, and whether the Olympics will increase its spread into countries that don't currently have it. An article in FiveThirtyEight explains why the latter isn't a major concern: despite Brazil being the origin of the current Zika outbreak, there are a lot more tourists to the entire outbreak area than people traveling to the Olympics. In other words, "a 30-person Olympic delegation and 100 spectators don’t present much additional risk to a country that’s already seeing 50,000 visitors a year from areas with Zika." For countries like the US, which already have an active, mosquito-borne outbreak, experts like Michael Osterholm of Consortium member the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP) emphasize the importance of basic public health measures. In an interview on the Diane Rehm Show, Osterholm recommended focusing on "eliminating the breeding sites – the water sources, the garbage. We now live in a plastic garbage world where one bottle cap sitting in a ditch is more than enough, is a great breeding site for this mosquito." CIDRAP maintains a Zika website that's a up-to-date, scientifically accurate, and global in scope; here's a link.

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Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries Zika virus

Human Role in Proliferation of Zika Mosquito Examined

June 21, 2016

The implacable nature of evolution means attempts to eradicate Aedes aegypti mosquitoes – the species that carries Zika virus and other diseases – are doomed to fail, according to an opinion piece in the LA Times by Prof. Marlene Zuk, PhD, of the College of Biological Sciences. Zuk describes the complex interaction between mosquitoes, humans and ecological systems that have led to emergence of a bug that's been "domesticated" to thrive in urban environments. Michael Osterholm, director of Consortium member the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), is quoted in the article on past, failed efforts to eliminate Aedes aegypti, noting "'evolutionary biology is the gravity' – the force – that underpins the progress and control of Zika."

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