Contagion containment

Scientists are always trying to track where the next virus outbreak is coming from


How do we track the path of a pandemic? This week I volunteered to become infectious to help researchers find out.

I should clarify: I am not wandering the streets of London, harbouring a flesh-eating virus. In fact, the experience is entirely virtual.

Working with researchers at University of Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the BBC has commissioned an app that measures the spread of a digital pathogen as it ‘infects’ people across the UK.

The aim is to build a map of movements and social interactions in the UK to help researchers understand how a disease like pandemic flu might spread in the event of a major outbreak, and how it could be controlled.

Putting the study into context, the BBC explained: “There are flu outbreaks every year, but in the last 100 years there have been four pandemics of a particularly deadly flu, including the Spanish Influenza outbreak which hit in 1918, killing up to 100 million people worldwide. Nearly a century later, a catastrophic flu pandemic still tops the UK Government’s Risk Register of threats to this country. Key to the Government’s response plan are mathematical models, which simulate how a highly contagious disease may spread. These models help to decide how best to direct NHS resources, like vaccines and protective clothing. But the models are only as good as the data that goes into them.”

One health concern that has caught the attention of veterinary academics in recent months is a parasitic worm, thelazia callipaeda, spread by a fruit fly and capable of infecting dogs, cats and human beings.

Clinical signs of the parasite in dogs included conjunctivitis, epiphora and in some cases corneal ulceration.

Lead author and University of Liverpool postdoctoral research associate, Dr John Graham-Brown, told OT’s Selina Powell that cases of the parasite in humans were reported in Spain, Italy, France, Croatia and Serbia.

“As far as we are aware, transmission is not occurring in the UK itself, and the risk to animals and people is currently through travel abroad,” he highlighted.

As part of an article published in Veterinary Record, the study authors encourage vets to be vigilant when examining dogs that have travelled abroad with their owners.

“Although effective diagnostic tests and treatments are available, more can and should be done to prevent this zoonotic pathogen from becoming endemic in the UK.”