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Drexel-Academy Research Aims to Stop the Spread of Emerging Diseases

September 20, 2011


Dr. Nate Rice, ornithology collection manager at the Academy of Natural Sciences, on an expedition to Vietnam.

When Drexel and the Academy of Natural Sciences announced their affiliation earlier this year, Drexel President John A. Fry noted that the partnership would “provide our faculty with opportunities to make even greater contributions to discovery and innovation in the natural and environmental sciences.”

How true his prophecy turned out to be.

In fact, at the time of the official announcement, researchers from both the Academy and the School of Public Health were already working on complementary projects to advance the knowledge base about emerging diseases.

Dr. Nate Rice, ornithology collection manager at the Academy of Natural Sciences, recently returned from a research trip to a remote area of northwestern Vietnam, near the border of China and Laos. Hiking through dense jungles, Rice was surveying common local and migratory birds in the region for emerging diseases, particularly avian influenza, which may be transferable to humans.

The research was a joint effort with the University of Kansas, and was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“This is the second such expedition that I've taken to Vietnam,” said Rice. “We sample each specimen (with swabs and lung samples) for viruses and these samples are then sent along to the CDC, we retain the bird specimens as voucher samples and are made available to other researchers for all sorts of research questions.”

The Academy maintains an ornithological collection of nearly 200,000 study skins and 15,000 tissue samples. Of great historical importance, specimens in the collection predate the founding of the Academy in 1812 and include important early bird collections from such famous collectors as Alexander Wilson, John Audubon and John Gould. It is one of the largest and oldest collections of its kind in the nation.

Rice’s main responsibility is to care for the Academy’s ornithological collection, but he also conducts research investigating the evolutionary biology of various neotropical bird groups. In addition to Vietnam, Rice has field and collection experience in the United States as well as parts of Europe, Africa, Australia and South America.

While Rice was collecting specimens in Vietnam, researchers at the School of Public Health were working to ensure that communities are being protected from the spread of emerging diseases, such as avian flu and H1N1.

Dr. Esther Chernak, an infectious disease physician and the director of the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication (CPHRC) at the School of Public Health, came to Drexel after working at the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health, where she oversaw public health emergency preparedness activities and also ran the Acute Communicable Disease Control Program. In that capacity, she worked to ensure that there were emergency response procedures to track and stop the spread of diseases, such as the ones that Rice investigates. She also worked to ensure that control measures like vaccines would be available to communities that needed them during emergencies.

Chernak’s current work with the CPHRC focuses on improving the health of marginalized, vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations.

“As evidenced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the 2007 Southern California Wildfires, the H1N1 pandemic, and countless other disasters and public health emergencies, racial/ethnic minorities suffer disproportionately adverse outcomes across all phases of an emergency,” said Chernak.

These disparities are driven by individual-level barriers, such as limited-English proficiency and cultural isolation, organizational challenges and structural inequalities, such as poverty and lack of access to healthcare.

“Through community engagement, inter-agency collaboration, evaluation and education, CPHRC undertakes initiatives to reduce disparities in public health emergency and disaster outcomes,” said Chernak.

The CPHRC also provides ongoing training and assistance to state and local public health departments, and other front-line practitioners to improve their readiness for public health emergencies.

Chernak is not alone at the School of Public Health when it comes to stopping the spread of emerging diseases. Dean Marla J. Gold, an infectious disease specialist, worked closely with school, city and federal officials in tracking H1N1 last year, as well as establishing the proper vaccine distribution across the city.

At the same time, Dr. Michael Yudell, an associate professor and expert in public health history and ethics, along with Dr. Chernak, is working with the Department of Health and Human Services to study on the ethics of vaccine development and distribution during a public health emergency. Their focus is to help ensure that hard-to-reach and vulnerable communities have access to needed vaccines.

Whether it’s Rice tracking migratory birds out in the jungles of Vietnam, or Chernak helping cities plan to track and stop the spread of emerging diseases, the partnership between the Academy and School of Public Health helps bring the two ends of this work together.

The affiliation between Drexel and the Academy was touted as “the dinosaur meets the dragon.” Yet, birds may be the key to the next great collaboration between these two powerhouse research institutions.

–By Richard Ochab