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Wisconsin stands at the center of scientific efforts to avert flu epidemics

Welcome to Wisconsin, the flu capital of North America.

Don't take that title the wrong way and run screaming for the nearest border. Wisconsin has yet to become a hot spot for the spread of avian influenza – and, it can be hoped, won't become one. However, it may be the place where a possible pandemic is monitored and even controlled.

Wisconsin is a leader in the national mobilization against the virulent H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus, research to make flu viruses more effective, and testing to determine whether flu samples are becoming more resistant to anti-viral drugs.

The state's expertise was front-and-center last week when the following news stories broke:

• Samples being collected from migratory birds in Alaska are being delivered to the Diagnostic Virology Laboratory at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Center in Madison. There, scientists are testing the samples for viral influenza, preserving them and injecting them into chicken eggs to be replicated for research. So far, no troublesome cases have been identified. By late summer, the lab may be handling 1,500 samples per day.
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• Governor Jim Doyle announced the $9 million Institute for Influenza Viral Research will open in Madison's University Research Park by the end of next year. It will be led by one of the latest stars on the UW-Madison faculty, flu researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who spurned a more lucrative offer from the University of Pittsburgh to stay in Wisconsin. Kawaoka has gained attention for engineering a "reverse genetics" technique to make flu vaccine more efficient and for showing how flu viruses organize their genetic material to create infectious particles.

• The state Laboratory of Hygiene will soon become the second U.S. lab to use a new test to check if flu samples are resistant to anti-viral drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is the only place in the country to use the test so far. More testing is vital because ordinary flu strains as well as bird flu show signs of defeating Tamiflu, the main treatment and prevention drug available.

The H5N1 strain of avian influenza may spread, somewhat predictably and naturally, based on the migratory flight patterns of birds. Researchers are watching the spring migrations of birds along the American Pacific, American Central and Atlantic flyways to see what happens when birds from North and South America mingle with Asian birds in the vast nesting grounds of Alaska and northern Canada. Those birds would return south later in the year.

In Alaska, biologists are swabbing birds daily for signs of the H5N1 virus, and they're shipping a good number of those samples to Madison. As federal Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said last week: "It's only a matter of time before we discover H5N1 birds in America."

That doesn't necessarily mean trouble for people, the poultry industry or pets. So far, the disease has not spread directly from birds to humans – only from people handling diseased live or uncooked poultry. In most outbreaks in Southeast Asia, for example, the movement of the virus was tied to the legal and illegal spread of poultry products. In that part of the world, many people routinely live in close proximity to birds.

Bird flu has been detected in 43 nations, scientists say, and is overwhelmingly affecting birds. But it is also being transmitted across species; since 2003, the World Health Organization has confirmed 177 human cases. About half have been fatal.

Wisconsin is a likely sentinel because of its concentration of researchers and wildlife experts, as well as its strategic location on the American Central Flyway. In addition to the National Wildlife Center in Madison and the UW-Madison, the state is home to the Marshfield Clinic, a national leader in research involving animal diseases that spread to humans, and the Medical College of Wisconsin, which has a Center for Biopreparedness and Infectious Diseases.

Led by experts such as the UW-Madison's Kawaoka and Hon Ip, director of the federal virology lab in Madison, the campaign to detect bird flu, devise effective tests and research possible remedies appears to be in good hands. However, the best way to fight the bird flu will be not to get it in the first place – which is why citizens in Wisconsin and elsewhere should take reasonable precautions if the time comes.

Once again, Wisconsin is demonstrating its strength in core research. Quietly, that expertise could save thousands of lives by combating an invader as tiny as a flu bug.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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