NEWS SCAN: BioWatch costs, polio efforts blocked, flu in Hong Kong, cholera in Haiti, mumps vaccine grant

Jun 18, 2012

Lawmakers question cost of upgrading BioWatch equipment
Some lawmakers are raising questions about the cost of automating the BioWatch program to provide faster identification of airborne pathogens, according to a Bloomberg Government story published today. Launched in 2003, the biodefense program monitors the air in major cities for pathogens such as Bacillus anthracis (which causes anthrax). Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., chair of the House subcommittee that oversees the program, has asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to analyze the cost of upgrading BioWatch sampling equipment to analyze samples automatically and provide results in as little as 3 hours, compared with up to 48 hours now. A consulting firm hired by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated in 2011 that the total price of the BioWatch program may reach $5.7 billion, far above an earlier estimate of $2.1 billion, the story said. A BioWatch spokesman said the $5.7 billion estimate covered a 17-year period, versus 10 years for the $2.1 billion estimate, and asserted that the two estimates could not be "validly compared." At a congressional hearing in March, Bilirakis and Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., questioned the cost of upgrading BioWatch and whether DHS could deploy it on schedule, the story said. Bilirakis vowed that the GAO report, due in August, will be considered carefully.
Jun 18 Bloomberg Government story

Hong Kong seeing unusually long flu season
Hong Kong is experiencing an unusually long flu season, reporting about 600 weekly cases recently, compared with about 100 cases per week for this period in recent years, Hong Kong's Information Services Department said today. Officials said local influenza activity has remained high from January to June, with 1,100 cases reported per week from late May to the first week of June. Centre for Health Protection Controller Thomas Tsang, MBBS, MPH, attributed the unusual season to a genetic change in the virus but did not elaborate, according to the government update. Hong Kong has had 170 flu-related deaths since January, 90% of them in the elderly, Tsang said.
Jun 18 Hong Kong update

Taliban commander bans polio vaccinations in tribal area of Pakistan
A Taliban commander in North Waziristan, part of Pakistan's tribal belt, has banned polio vaccinations in the region until the US stops drone strikes there, the New York Times reported today. The commander, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, fears that the CIA could use the vaccination effort as a cover for spying, as it did in the case of Shakil Afridi, the Pakistan doctor who helped track Osama bin Laden. A United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) official said health workers had hoped to reach 161,000 children younger than 5 in a vaccination drive scheduled to begin Jun 20 in the tribal belt. Dr. Muhammad Sadiq, surgeon general for North Waziristan, told the Times that the campaign would have to be canceled because of the ban. Din Muhammad, a journalist based in the neighboring South Waziristan tribal agency, said the main Taliban commander there was also planning to block polio vaccinations, according to the Times. Pakistan, one of three countries where polio is still endemic, has had 22 cases so far this year, versus 52 at this time last year.
Jun 18 Times story

Cholera cases ebb in Port-au-Prince
Port-au-Prince is experiencing dramatically fewer cholera cases recently, the director of Doctors Without Borders said last week, according to the Associated Press (AP). Thierry Goffeau said his organization has seen cholera cases in the Haitian capital drop to 528 last week after reaching 1,354 cases per week in late May. The weekly total in late April was 708. Cholera continues to cause significant problems in the country, however, and has killed more than 7,200 and sickened 550,000, the story said.
Georgia researchers awarded $1.8 million for new mumps vaccine
A team of University of Georgia (UGA) researchers has received a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to explore and develop a new vaccine to help stop a new strain of mumps from spreading, according to a UGA news release. Although immunizations diminished US mumps cases to very few in recent years, two large outbreaks in the Midwest and Northeast in 2006 and 2010 were caused by mumps genotype G, as opposed to genotype A in the current vaccine. "The virus is always evolving and mutating, and new viruses will emerge," said Biao He, PhD, a UGA professor of infectious diseases and investigator in the College of Veterinary Medicine. "It's only a matter of time until the old vaccine we have doesn't work," he said. Dr. He suggested that, because of new technology, producing a new vaccine may be the best way to control the emerging strain. "In the past few years, we have taken advantage of genetic engineering, and my lab is particularly good at engineering viruses," he said. The UGA team hopes to use the technology employed in developing the genotype G vaccine to create vaccines for the other 12 mumps genotypes circulating worldwide.
Jun 13 UGA press release

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