Thursday, November 23, 2006

UNH gets $1.55M for avian flu study


UNH gets $1.55M for avian flu study

DURHAM -- An international, interdisciplinary team of researchers led by professor Xiangming Xiao of the University of New Hampshire is taking a scientific approach in an attempt to understand the ecology of the avian influenza, develop better methods of predicting its spread and provide an accurate early warning system.

Xiao and colleagues were recently awarded $1.55 million for a four-year project funded by the U.S. National Institutes for Health as part of the Ecology of Infectious Diseases Program jointly sponsored with the U.S. National Science Foundation. The EID program supports research projects that develop quantitative analysis and modeling capacity for better understanding the relationship between manmade environmental change and the transmission of infectious agents.

The UNH project will use environmental remote sensing data from Earth-observing satellites in combination with research in epidemiology, ornithology and agriculture to provide a better picture of how the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza survives and gets transmitted among poultry and wild birds. The work focuses on China, where outbreaks of the virus have been prominent.

Xiao, of the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space Complex Systems Research Center, is the principal investigator for a team that includes scientists from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and research institutes in Belgium and China. Research scientist Rob Braswell is a co-investigator.

The ecology of the avian influenza involves a complex web of factors, including environmental settings, agricultural practices of rice production and harvesting, poultry production involving huge populations of free-grazing ducks and the migratory behavior of wild bird populations. Depending on how all of these risk factors intermingle over time, the virus can be spread through the environment by infected wild birds or domestic poultry.

"The strength of our group, and of this proposal, is that over the last few years we've been able to pull a lot of information out of satellite observations that can help unravel the complex risk factors involved in avian flu ecology," said Xiao.

For example, using imagery from satellites, the team can map and track the times when crops are planted and harvested and monitor activity in wetlands. Used in conjunction with other data of the environment, bird migration and poultry production, dynamic maps of "hot spots" and "hot times" for viral transmission can be developed and will aid the public, researchers, business and decision-makers in preparing for a potential pandemic crisis.

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