The threat of deadly new influenza strains makes predicting the disease’s path a global imperative. University of Iowa investigators like Gregory Gray are part of the effort, learning how flu viruses spread and preparing for outbreaks.
A professor of epidemiology, Gray directs the College of Public Health’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, studying how animal diseases—including the H5N1 influenza strain, or so-called “bird flu”—migrate to humans.
Passing through domestic birds and livestock, wild bird viruses can mutate into hazardous new forms with potential to spark the next flu pandemic. Gray and colleagues monitor people whose proximity to birds puts them at risk for avian viruses. In one study, the researchers plan to follow 1,600 poultry workers in Cambodia and Thailand to better understand the epidemiology of avian influenza infections in humans.
Other UI faculty members also contribute to the flu fight. Patricia Winokur, associate professor of internal medicine, studies vaccines that target H5N1 and other, more common influenza strains. She’s helping to determine whether an additive to the H5N1 vaccine can boost immunity and stretch vaccine supplies.
Meanwhile, Iowa’s Tippie College of Business and Carver College of Medicine conduct flu forecasts with the Iowa Health Prediction Market, an innovative project that lets health care professionals buy and sell contracts representing influenza activity. Trading on the market may reflect flu trends that conventional disease surveillance methods miss.
Influenza cuts a shifting course through human populations. But UI researchers are watching, ready to identify trouble spots and to create preventive strategies for flu seasons to come.