BiodefenseAnticipating new diseases, bioterror methods

Published 13 November 2009

The 150 researchers at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute work to anticipate and respond to new diseases and old ones — such as tuberculosis and cholera — that can turn into new threats or make a comeback

What confronts Dr. Glenn Morris each day would keep most people from sleeping each night. Swine flu. West Nile Virus. E. coli bacteria. Jacksonville.com reports that this is barely scratching the surface of the alarming plant, animal, and food disease threats that Morris tracks.
He does not panic, though. It is just part of Morris’s job as director of the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, established three years ago with $60 million from the Florida Legislature to help safeguard Florida against dangerous microorganisms.

“You don’t know what’s going to show up when you walk in the office,” said Morris, a medical doctor and a world-class research scientist. “There’s always something going on in Florida and the rest of the world.”

Florida’s subtropical climate and attraction of people and products makes it vulnerable to worrisome diseases. A blue globe on Morris’ desk is a reminder of how Florida’s challenges must be viewed with one eye on the rest of the planet.

For instance, a wayward mosquito or bacteria from a ship or a plane from elsewhere can become the next killer of people, citrus or livestock.
Many lives, wildlife, and multi-million-dollar industries hinge on prevention and control. This is  where Morris and his team of about 150 researchers come into play. They work to anticipate and respond to new diseases and old ones — such as tuberculosis and cholera — that can turn into new threats or make a comeback.

The effort entails tackling problems that are already here and developing models to confront others that could arise. For example, consider if a mosquito with dengue fever (a flu-like viral illness) reaches Miami. What are the odds of an epidemic? How would it spread? What could be done to control it?

Jacksonville.com notes that the institute is still a work in progress. Morris began his role two years ago. Researchers are still being recruited. A new institute building will open soon with state-of-the-art labs and a workscape designed to get people normally isolated in their own departments and fields — such as veterinarians, doctors, pharmacists, ecologists, and geographers — to compare notes and gain a grip on problems.
The approach distinguishes the institute from others around the country that focus on just one problem or disease, Morris noted. “We are kind of looking at problems in a different way,” he said. “The approach has allowed us to pull in the best investigators in the world to craft unique approaches to problems.”

A variety of federal agencies and foundations are taking note. Grants are coming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Defense, among others, along with the private Gates Foundation. The institute is involved with research efforts in thirty-four countries, which enhances the global view the institute needs to look out for Florida.

In one project closer to home, the institute is working with health departments in Alachua, Bradford, Union, and eight other counties throughout Florida to increase immunizations of students against flu and then monitor the impacts in the communities.
Disease threats and bio-terrorism are inseparable for many people nowadays, and Morris acknowledges the bio-terrorism threat is real. It is not what concerns him most, though.

“For me, it’s more about what’s going on with what nature throws at us,” Morris said.
Nature constantly evolves and devises new ways to make plants, animals, and people sick, he said. Antibiotic resistance is rising. Yet, this is no reason for the public to live in fear, Morris said.

“Sometimes we have a tendency to become overly paranoid,” Morris said. “We are in many ways a very safe country when you compare the risks of acquiring diseases in the United States to many Third World countries. The risks are significantly reduced, and that’s a good thing.”

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