$2.5m grant to probe how diseases become epidemics

Oregon State University-led project will focus on how infectious diseases of plants and animals transmit over long distances.

An Oregon State University scientist is heading a multinational team studying how to anticipate and curb the next disease outbreak before it blows up into a global epidemic.

Funded by a new $2.5 million grant, Oregon State plant pathologist Christopher Mundt and his team are probing infectious diseases of humans, animals and plants that have a distinctive trait in common: the capability of the pathogen — whether virus, fungus or bacterium — to transmit itself over long distances. This pattern, he said, characterizes diseases like avian influenza, which have produced continental-scale epidemics.

"Our goal is to develop rules of thumb for identifying and controlling diseases that have this long-distance dispersal capability," Mundt said. "We don't have the scientific manpower to create detailed models of every potential epidemic. So a generalized set of control strategies would be vital in policy planning during the early stages of an outbreak."

Mundt, a professor in Oregon State's College of Agricultural Sciences, is partnering with scientists from Kansas State University, North Carolina State University and two universities in England on the five-year project, which is being funded by several organizations.

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As people and pathogens move freely around the world, pandemic diseases increasingly threaten public health and global economies, according to the National Science Foundation, one of the project’s funding agencies. The World Health Organization calls infectious-disease epidemics "contemporary health catastrophes."

For 15 years, Mundt and his colleagues have been studying stripe rust, a fast-spreading fungal disease that damages wheat, in experiments on commercial farms in central Oregon’s Jefferson County.

The new study will incorporate findings from this ongoing work. Mundt and his team will also analyze data from two real-life 2001 epidemics: foot and mouth disease in Britain, caused by a virus; and sudden oak death, which started in California and spread to southern Oregon. That disease is transmitted by a water mold called Phytophthora ramorum.

The researchers will also study historical outbreaks of animal and human viral diseases spread by insects, such as West Nile, Rift Valley fever and Japanese encephalitis. Finally, they will use modeling and field experiments to test strategies for controlling epidemics, including vaccination, drug therapy, quarantines and eradicating of host organisms around centers of infection.

The research is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food & Agriculture in collaboration with the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the U.K.’s Biotechnology & Biological Services Research Council.

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