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Research / Discovery

Advancing studies in avian influenza

January 22, 2009

As Dr. Kristy Pabilonia is finding out the hard way, establishing a veterinary research center in Indonesia comes with a lot of government red tape and bureaucracy - especially when the focus of the research center is avian influenza, a politically sensitive issue and constant public health threat.

In a country where poultry is one of the proteins of choice, avian influenza can destabilize a primary food source and cause major disruption to the small market based sales of poultry, to say nothing of the fear of mutation and establishment of the virus in the human population.

Research center in Indonesia

The research project will be a collaborative effort between Colorado State University and two Indonesian institutions – the Center for Indonesian Veterinary Analytical Studies (CIVAS) and Institut Pertanian Bogor (Bogor Agricultural University or IPB).

Colorado State University and IPB signed a memorandum of understanding in 2008 to create an avian influenza research laboratory at the IPB veterinary college. This collaboration will help advance studies in avian influenza while helping Indonesia develop novel ways to approach avian influenza.

(Photo:  Kristy Pabilonia, assistant professor of microbiology, immunology and pathology, during a biosecurity assessment at a local farm)

Dr. Kristy Pabilonia, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology, heads up the Colorado Avian Disease Surveillance Program and is the lead investigator on the IPB project – including setting up and providing mentorship to CIVAS.

Avian influenza is highly contagious among domesticated birds

Highly pathogenic avian influenza is highly contagious among domesticated birds, causing sickness and death. Infection with avian influenza viruses in domestic poultry causes two main forms of disease that are distinguished by low and high pathogenicity. The highly pathogenic form spreads rapidly through flocks and has a mortality rate that can reach 90 to 100 percent within 48 hours. De-population of entire flocks (and neighboring flocks) is often the method of choice to control an outbreak.

“Starting in 2003, millions of bird deaths were attributed to outbreaks of avian influenza type H5N1 in Southeast Asia, both through disease and de-population to prevent spread of disease,” said Dr. Pabilonia.

First human cases reported in 2003

“In 2003, the first human cases were reported. Since that time, there have been 385 cases in humans with 243 deaths worldwide. Concerns began to rise that H5N1 would mutate, be able to spread from human to human, and be sustained in the human population leading to a catastrophic influenza outbreak. Because of those concerns, more resources have been put into the study of avian influenza and its epidemiology, as well as basic science studies to better understand avian influenza viruses. Our work in Indonesia is an expansion of those early studies, enabling us to study the disease where it is endemic.”

In 2006, researchers in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
were awarded $2.6 million from the Centers for Disease Control to study how interactions between humans and birds may lead to more widespread transmission of avian influenza. The three-year study focuses on the western United States where H5N1 avian influenza has not been detected and in Indonesia where the virus has been detected in both birds and humans.

Investigating how infected humans interact with infected birds

Researchers study how infected humans interact with infected birds in Indonesia and study the impacts that suboptimal vaccinations given to birds in that area may contribute to elevated risk to humans. Dr. Richard A. Bowen, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, is principal investigator on the grant. CSU also has a collaborative project with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver which is doing human studies in Indonesia while CSU is focusing on animal studies.

(Photo:  Backyard flock)

“It is abundantly clear that we need to better understand avian flu in humans and animals, as well as the interactions between these two groups in order to devise and implement effective prevention and control strategies,” said Dr. Bowen, who is a member of the Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory. “It is also critical to understand how the differences in ecological areas may affect these interactions.”

Understanding culture adds insight into dynamics of disease

Dr. Pabilonia has traveled to Indonesia numerous times not only to set up research projects with IPB and CIVAS but also to help teach avian epidemiology training courses through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

She also regularly travels to villages and small markets throughout Indonesia to better understand the travel patterns of domestic fowl, and acquaint herself with the cultural aspects of domestic ducks and chickens. Dr. Pabilonia, in the name of research and cultural understanding, has eaten:

  • curried chicken lung
  • liver
  • kidneys
  • deep-fried chicken intestines
  • chicken feet

She draws the line at fish which, she says, mystifies her hosts who don’t understand the concept of not liking fish. It’s worth the effort, Dr. Pabilonia said, because the work in Indonesia will help researchers develop a greater understanding of the dynamics of avian influenza.

Still concerns about mutation and global expansion

“The picture now in Indonesia is that avian influenza is still endemic, it is still spreading and traveling through markets and village flocks, and we still have concerns about mutation and global expansion,” said Dr. Pabilonia. “The good news is that we are making progress in bringing technology and training to a part of the world where avian influenza is not only a potential health risk, but a real health risk in terms of the local economies and food supply.

With the laboratory, we will be able to do avian influenza diagnostics and establish good laboratory practices, which will help us obtain good, reliable results for our research projects.”

Original story published on page 16 of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science Insight newsletter, Fall 2008.