U of M gets grant to plan for pandemics

The University of Minnesota is getting $55 million as part of a worldwide effort to prevent pandemics. The effort will focus on the source of many pandemics -- developing countries where animal-borne diseases often take hold before spreading to humans.

Avian influenza, SARS and the Ebola virus are just a few human pandemics that began with animal diseases.

To deal with these kinds of health threats, the United States Agency for International Development, an independent government agency that provides aid to foreign countries, has started what it calls the Emerging Pandemic Threat program.

The agency will spend $185 million over the next five years on the effort, and the University of Minnesota will be paid $55 million for its researchers to take part.

John Finnegan, dean of the U's School of Public Health, says it won't be glorious work. Don't expect researchers to swoop in with new vaccines to cure diseases. Rather, Finnegan says they'll teach developing nations to better detect and manage disease outbreaks.

"It's very much 'boots on the ground' public health -- helping to build that kind of infrastructure to prevent the infection and spread of these diseases," said Finnegan.

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Six university departments will be involved in the project. They include researchers from veterinary and agriculture sciences, to doctors and nurses in the medical school.

Katey Pelican with the U's College of Veterinary Medicine will co-direct the effort. She says a broad base of knowledge is needed to teach developing countries better ways to handle pandemics.

"A lot of it is working across disciplines, so having animal and human health professionals train together and understand together how to manage these diseases," said Pelican. "In order to be really effective in managing them, you have manage them both in the animals and the humans."

Over the next five years, U of M researchers could find themselves working with people and governments in Africa, Asia and Central and South America.

"We're going to be working from the front-line level -- national park personnel, village nurses, village paraprofessionals, people that work with animals that are not necessarily veterinarians, all the way up to the ministry level," said Pelican.

U of M researchers could start traveling to foreign countries within a few months to determine which parts of the world need the most help preventing future pandemics.