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May 5, 2000

Deadly Viruses Topic of UW-RF Health Conference

By Jolene Bracy

Americans faces health care challenges on a daily basis. They are concerned with transmitted diseases like influenza and strep, or food-borne illnesses like salmonella. But they may never consider the real threat of a deadly imported viruses that could affect life in the Midwest.

U.S. Army Colonels Nancy and Jerry Jaax recently addressed these issues during a Global Health Conference at the University of Wisconsin River Falls.

The idea that the world has become smaller through technological advances has long been a reality. Now, people have easy access to remote areas never before visited by humans. Emerging infectious diseases from exotic locations now have the potential of traveling just as easily and quickly as the people or animals who become infected with them.

The Jaax's have termed this decade, "The decade of the virus." Viruses have no regard for political, social, economic or geographic boundaries.

This is one of the reasons viruses such as an Ebola-Reston outbreak among monkeys in Reston, Va., are still hot topics. The Jaax's managed the Reston research team that contained the outbreak, and they became the basis for the book, "The Hot Zone," by Richard Preston, and the movie, "Outbreak," starring Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo.

"Reston served as a wake-up call to this country to say we are unprepared to deal with an outbreak of this scope," said Jerry Jaax. "We need to look at what significant shortcomings we have in our public health systems. Local, state and national response is under review to improve our handling of potential outbreaks. This is no longer an issue of whether an outbreak will occur, it is, 'When will one happen?' "

Potential diseases may come from Mexico into Texas through transmission by mosquitoes. On the East Coast the transmission of West Nile fever is being watched in migratory birds, and is a possible threat to humans. Ebola viruses are believed to be passed up the food chain.

They can be extraordinarily lethal. Ebola-Zaire, for example, has a 90 percent mortality rate in humans. Fortunately, the odds of the virus actually surfacing in Wisconsin are slim, .according to the Jaaxes. "Ebola-Zaire responds well to containment. It is not an easily transmitted disease. However, there are other diseases where we are not so fortunate," they noted.

One example is the ongoing public debate whether the U.S. should destroy its stores of smallpox virus, now that the disease is believed to be eradicated. Smallpox is highly contagious and a large percentage of the population in the United States would be vulnerable to an infection. The threat lies in the huge stores of the virus that were manufactured by other nations, including the former Soviet Union, as well as some rogue Third World nations, and stockpiled for biological warfare. If America destroys its stocks, where will it obtain the virus to create immunization stores, the Jaaxes and others ask.

Colonel Nancy Jaax noted, "It is very important, through adequate surveillance, to watch these diseases. These types of diseases are not easy to treat. Some of these diseases were thought to have been beaten and surveillance dollars were cut back. A critical issue in these emerging nations is that they be monitored very closely, because that is the place one of these viruses is most likely to occur."

Colonel Jerry Jaax pointed out that surveillance is expensive. "It requires infrastructure, and people want their dollars spent in other areas. Surveillance, on the surface, looks like it is not worth the investment you are making in it when you don't have something to deal with. But, when it happens, then all of a sudden, it is a big event because when people are affected it could mean the difference between life and death."

Fortunately for U.S. citizens, the Jaaxes and their colleagues serve as gatekeepers against potential virus outbreaks. Nancy Jaax still spends much her of time in the U.S. Army medical research facility at Fort Dettrick, Md.

Her passion is the research and knowledge of the Ebola virus and the opportunity to don a biosafety space suit, walk into the containment unit and begin manipulating a lethal virus that literally has no cure. Trust in the equipment and the procedures to contain a hazard like Ebola come very naturally to her.

Jerry Jaax is now researching at Kansas State University in argicultural bioterroism, a closely intertwined subject to global health. He feels there is a significant vulnerability in this country for agricultural-bioterroism, which would translate into economic terrorism. "The implications of bioterrorism or a straight emerging disease outbreak that could decimate cattle, hogs wheat or rice would be devastating to the U.S." It's possible to destroy a portion of the food chain, resulting in a major world wide economic impact.

While the potential exists for an outbreak at any time, the Jaaxes ended on a positive note. It does not necessarily appear that viral outbreaks are any worse than in the past. Viruses have been around for generations. However, as the Jaaxes noted, the presence of pervasive world-wide media now means that we have extensive information on every outbreak.

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