UN-backed device zeroes in on bird flu

A $1,000 mobile testing device no bigger than a small portable television that could revolutionize the fight against bird flu and many other livestock diseases by saving vital time in identifying the source of outbreaks and so increase the chances of containing the spread figures high on the agenda of a five-day United Nations meeting starting today.

“The genius here is that such mobile testers can be used by anyone, with the most basic training,” said John Crowther of the Vienna-based Joint UN Food and Agriculture Organization / International Atomic Energy Agency Programme’s Animal Production and Health section.

“Even farmers could do a test and the result could immediately be processed back to a central point, like a mobile phone message. Within two years, such tests could revolutionize disease diagnosis,” he added, noting that work is underway to reduce the device’s size further into what researchers call a “laboratory in a pen.”

The main testing tools in the past 30 years have been laboratory based, including the ELISA (Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay) technique using proteins and enzymes. More modern technologies deploy what is known as the PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) technique, whereby a tiny amount of DNA is amplified and read. This method would be used for the laboratory in a pen.

“Ultimately the tests would be done locally by people in their own countries, making schemes much more efficient in everything including speed, costs and local knowledge,” Mr. Crowther said of the devices which can be used for monitoring diseases in a range of animals from bird flu to foot-and-mouth disease or Rift Valley fever in cattle, sheep, camels, goats. The fever can also infect and kill humans.

At this week’s meeting, researchers, scientists and manufacturers from 13 countries as well as international bodies and commercial concerns from Europe and the United States, will discuss the development and potential of portable devices to study samples and discover the cause of death in birds.

The kit can be adapted to detect the strain of bird flu, including H5N1 that has led to the deaths of hundreds of millions of poultry, infected 279 people, 169 of them fatally, and sparked fears that any mutation could make the virus more easily transmissible in humans and could in a worst case scenario fuel a human pandemic with the death toll in the millions.

The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920, which spread easily between humans, is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people worldwide.

The portable system could easily be adapted to send results to a main control centre, allowing a much faster response to an outbreak.

The five-day talks are part of a $500,000 coordinated research project by the Joint FAO/IAEA Programme. Further project activities will include field-testing of devices, identifying areas for initial deployment and exploring future funding sources. The programme explores the potential of nuclear technology to increase agricultural production, and for this project it will offer technical guidance, training and research, and encourage financial backing from governments.

The latest outbreak of bird flu, starting in Asia in late 2003 and spreading to Europe and Africa, is estimated to have cost the Asian poultry sector alone at least $10 billion.

Countries represented at the meeting include Australia, Austria, Burkina Faso, China, Ghana, Nigeria, Netherlands, Philippines, South Africa, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States and Vietnam.

Source United Nations


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