Mapping the spread of avian flu

Joseph Oppong
Associate Professor of Geography
Friday, October 28, 2005

Recent warnings about avian flu have many people wondering about the possibility of the disease spreading to the United States.

University of North Texas medical geographer Joseph Oppong says that rather than fearing the spread of avian flu, it's better to gain knowledge about the disease and what people can do to prepare in the event that it does spread to the U.S.

Oppong, a U.S. representative to the International Geographical Union Commission on Health and the Environment is helping set standards about the way scientists track the spread of infectious diseases. Oppong is also a former chair of a specialty group of the Association of Medical Geographers.

He says the U.S. needs to help countries already impacted by avian flu contain the spread of the disease as the first step in preventing it from reaching more countries.

"Infectious diseases like avian flu don't need visas to travel," he says. "They don't respect boundaries, so whatever we can do to help other countries contain the spread of this flu protects U.S. citizens from infection."

Oppong says that the U.S. also needs to develop quicker ways to produce vaccine to protect people from this flu.

"Current avian flu vaccines take from six to eight months to produce," he says. "In the event of an outbreak, we will not have a completely effective vaccine until producers develop a vaccine for the particular strain for an outbreak, and we can't develop the vaccine until the outbreak has occurred."

An expert in how to calculate the rate, spread and control of plagues, Oppong points out locations where infectious diseases occur and determines how and where they are likely to spread.

"Avian flu was primarily concentrated in Asia, with cases cropping up in Turkey," he says. "Now it's spreading to other parts of Europe, and if we can track it, we can try to contain it."

To track the path of disease like avian flu, Oppong gathers data and determines when the disease arrives at a location. He programs this information into a computer package called a Geographical Information System. The GIS produces a computer landscape of data, which looks like a geographic map of an outbreak.

Oppong can draw other data into his electronic map, including economic indicators, health care policies and practices and population information according to location. To this, he can add information about cultural traditions that could affect outbreaks.

Analyzing this information helps Oppong determine where infectious diseases like avian flu are most likely to spread.

"Since we know that avian flu is primarily transmitted from bird to bird, and can in some cases be transmitted to humans, we know we need to protect high populations in close proximity to animals such as poultry. We also need to support affected countries in staffing hospitals and public health facilities," he says.

For more information about Oppong's work, visit www.unt.edu/resource/04mappingfeature.htm.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108

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