Better flu prediction?

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UGA researchers are studying ways to more accurately predict emerging strains of influenza. The research is funded with a $1.12 million grant from the National Institutes of Health over the next four years.

The scientists, in chemistry and veterinary medicine, are refining a nanotechnology-based method that uses laser light beams to better predict strains of the flu with a risk of high mortality.

Influenza kills thousands of people each year worldwide, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 3,000 to 49,000 flu-related deaths occurred annually in the United States alone from 1976 to 2007. Millions are immunized every year against influenza, but vaccines aren’t always effective because it is difficult to predict the flu strain for a given year.

Virulence—how easy or difficult it is for a disease to be passed along or to kill its host—is determined by the presence of molecules called virulence factors. Studies have shown that different types of influenza may contain the same virulence factors. The same protein, for example, was found in the different virus strains that caused both the 1997 Hong Kong bird flu and the 1918 pandemic known as the “Spanish flu” that killed nearly 50 million people. If certain proteins and other molecules within the viruses can be associated with particularly virulent strains of influenza, epidemiologists might be able to prevent the spread of those strains.