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Virologists Track New Influenza Threat

MADISON, Wisc. - University of Wisconsin-Madison influenza experts will conduct a detailed surveillance next month of the dangerous strain of influenza that has infected eight people and killed three in Hong Kong.

Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virology professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine, will travel to Hong Kong in early January to identify the source of the virus, a type found commonly in birds. Finding the virus in animals is important in determining how the virus is being spread. If the spread is person-to-person, rather than extremely rare avian-to-person cases, it poses a more serious public health threat.

Kawaoka and UW-Madison post-doctoral fellow Peng Gao will team with Dr. Robert Webster of St. Jude's Childrens Research Hospital in Memphis for the month-long study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

This strain of influenza, called H5 influenza, is found in birds worldwide and, in this case, is believed to have originated in chickens. A Hong Kong child who died of H5 influenza in May is the first documented case of a human contracting this type of flu. Since then, seven others have been diagnosed with this potentially lethal strain.

"There's no way of knowing at this point whether this virus will take off or die off in people," Kawaoka said, "but the surveillance in poultry will tell us what's out there. We have to work discreetly because at this point there is no need to make people panic."


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Contact: Yoshihiro Kawaoka
kawaoky@svm.vetmed.wisc.edu
608-265-4925
University of Wisconsin-Madison
22-Dec-1997


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