August 21, 2014

research

New Institute Jumps on Germs

Cynthia Barnett | 3/1/2010
In Key West this past fall, 20 residents fell ill with dengue fever. The tropical disease is not new to the state; dengue was blamed for curtailing economic recovery in a 1930s epidemic. But the 2009 cases are the first acquired inside Florida's borders in more than 50 years. They also represent a first big test for Florida's new Emerging Pathogens Institute in Gainesville.

mosquito
The Everglades virus is spread by black salt marsh mosquitoes.? [Photo: James Newman/IFAS-FMEL top]

In 2006, the Legislature appropriated $60 million to the University of Florida to bolster and centralize the state's research and response to emerging — and, like dengue, re-emerging — human, animal and plant pathogens. Florida's subtropical climate makes it vulnerable to exotic viruses, from West Nile to citrus greening. Eighty million tourists and vigorous global trade increase the odds of stowaways. "Every 727 that comes in probably disembarks 10 mosquitoes along with the passengers," says director Dr. J. Glenn Morris Jr.

The institute cross-pollinates the work of Florida scientists battling infectious diseases here and around the world. Epidemiologists, veterinary researchers, entomologists and plant pathologists are among the 50 faculty in the 80,000-sq.-ft. headquarters that opened in January. Researchers from the liberal arts, such as geography and mathematics, have a considerable role, too. Institute geographers, for example, predicted the spread of malaria in Africa by analyzing millions of cell phone records.

Dr. J. Glenn Morris Jr.
Dr. J. Glenn Morris Jr.

It may not be possible to keep exotic diseases out of Florida; the point is to eradicate pathogens in the parts of the world where they're thriving and put up "multiple hurdles" to slow their arrival and spread here.

When dengue showed up in Key West, institute researchers at the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach put on their detective hats to try to figure out where it came from, how far it had spread and whether Florida mosquitoes were still carrying it; some were. The focus now is on eradicating mosquitoes in the Keys and intense surveillance through this spring to see if the dengue spreads.

Roxanne Connelly, a medical entomology professor at the Vero facility, says the outbreak shows the need for the institute's team approach: "We work with the insects, but you really need physicians, public-health researchers, epidemiologists and others to figure out how diseases are getting in and what to do to prevent them."

Tags: Northeast, Education, Environment

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