RESPOND program to improve global perspective on emerging diseases

Published on October 31, 2009 at 4:49 AM · No Comments

Experts from the University of Minnesota will soon be on the frontlines working to help developing countries better respond to emerging animal diseases that pose a threat to human health.

The University of Minnesota is part of a multidisciplinary team that will implement a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) cooperative agreement with funding up to $185 million.

The project, called RESPOND, is one of five that will work together to pre-empt or combat the first stages of emerging zoonotic pandemics - diseases that can spread between animals and humans.

Faculty from the College of Veterinary Medicine, the School of Public Health, the School of Nursing, the Medical School, the College of Education and Human Development, and College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resources Sciences, will be traveling to hot spots (likely located in Southeast Asia, the Congo Basin, and the Amazon Basin) to try to prevent the next pandemic. They'll be tasked with improving the ability of countries to recognize and respond to new epidemics in areas where ecological relationships - between humans, animals, and the environment - are unstable.

"The University of Minnesota was sought out because of our range of expertise in zoonotic diseases that crosses disciplines and our focus on the connection between animal and human health," said Frank B. Cerra, M.D., senior vice president for health sciences at the University of Minnesota. "We are one of only a handful of places in the country that has this range of disciplines."

"Without the leadership of Deans Trevor Ames (veterinary medicine), Connie Delaney (nursing), John Finnegan (public health), and collaboration from the Medical School, College of Education and Human Development and College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Science this would not have happened," Cerra said.

DAI, a company based in Washington, D.C., will lead the RESPOND team, in partnership with the University of Minnesota and Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts - another key member of the cooperative.

Although members of the RESPOND team will be dealing with diseases that don't yet exist, examples of similar diseases they might try to prevent include SARS, Ebola, and avian influenza.

"USAID recognizes the critical need to address emerging illnesses from a global perspective, and to better understand the intersection between human and animal health," said Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum, founder of the Congressional Global Health Caucus. "With this project, USAID recognizes the unique leadership role the University of Minnesota plays in bringing together the multiple disciplines and expertise required to address this global challenge."

The College of Veterinary Medicine's new Ecosystem Health program, National Center for Food Protection and Defense, and Center for Animal Health and Food Safety were instrumental in obtaining funds to join RESPOND.

"We are increasingly aware that our health depends on the health of livestock, wildlife, and the environment," said Katey Pelican, D.V.M., Ph.D., who championed University of Minnesota's proposal effort to join the DAI/RESPOND team and is the head of the Ecosystem Health program. "Nowhere is this clearer than in the increasing number of diseases that are emerging from animal populations as environmental degradation forces more interactions between wildlife, livestock and humans. The RESPOND program will provide the University of Minnesota the opportunity to use its unique ability to work across animal and human health disciplines to improve global response to these life-threatening outbreaks."

Over the course of the five-year project, the RESPOND team will work to improve the training and response capacity for zoonotic disease outbreak identification, investigation, analysis, and control within countries and regions; strive to improve the coordination among public and private interests involved in an outbreak; support in-country outbreak response activities; and introduce new technologies to help improve a country's response to an outbreak.

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