Ehab Saad (right), Medical Research Technologist, Naval Medical Research Unit-3 (NAMRU-3), discusses his research on Influenza strains during poster sessions at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene held in Atlanta, Georgia from November 13-17. (Photo by NMRC Public Affairs)
SILVER SPRING, Md - The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH), annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia held Nov.13-17, brought researchers from all over the world together to share the latest advancements and important breakthroughs in various areas of infectious disease research. Influenza, a highly contagious airborne infectious disease that occurs in seasonal epidemics, is one of the more widely-known viruses. Influenza A can cause severe respiratory illnesses and has the potential to impact mission effectiveness of warfighters.
The study of the genetic changes of the different influenza strains is a crucial first step in selecting the most effective vaccine for the next year. Reporting on the genetic changes in the virus in Egypt was the basis of the research presented at ASTMH by the research team from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit-3 (NAMRU-3) located in Cairo, Egypt.
The NAMRU-3 team, along with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) partners, focused on characterizing the strain of the disease from samples from the 2014/2015 influenza season in Egypt, which typically runs from October to April.
“Our data supports the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation of replacing (A/Texas/50/2012) with (A/Switzerland/9715293/2013), in the influenza vaccine composition for 2015/16 flu [sic] season,” said Ehab Saad, Medical Research Technologist, NAMRU-3.
CDC reported lower vaccine effectiveness rates, during the 2014-2015 influenza season (18 percent), the rates increased for the 2015-2016 season (59 percent).
“The findings of this research assisted in the prediction of the appropriate influenza strains for vaccine formulation and suggested the susceptibility of certain strains to vaccines. The data that is continuously generated is uploaded onto online data bases; NAMRU-3 has been a contributor to the seasonal flu surveillance and characterization for thirteen years,” said Saad.
According to the CDC, influenza viruses undergo gradual and continuous changes (genetic drift) and vaccines can lose much of their ‘fighting’ power because the changes in the virus continue after the vaccine has been produced.
“Alteration in the genetic properties of the virus can lead to antigenic changes. Antigenic changes might lead to severe infections. Tracking both genetic and antigenic drifts helps predict unprecedented disease outcomes,” explained Saad.
The Characterization of circulating strains is one step in the process of selecting a vaccine. In order to choose a vaccine for the next influenza season the circulating viruses from 2016-2017 will need to be characterized and that data will then be shared with WHO influenza reference laboratories.
“Infectious diseases are historically responsible for more U. S. casualties than combat related injuries. Forums such as ASTMH, which is the principal professional organization dedicated to the prevention and control of tropical diseases, provide a forum to share results with stakeholders and collaborators,” said Cmdr. Kellie McMullen, Science Director, NAMRU-3.
Many ASTMH meeting attendees agreed that the meeting helped foster collaborative relationships, but this was only one of many benefits of attending.
“Sharing data and information among researchers help in obtaining a comprehensive understanding of the research topic,” said Saad.
The meeting also provided an opportunity to learn about topics outside of their research area.
“I attended a session about the Zika virus and its impact on infant health, I was thrilled by the efforts of the scientists because they studied various aspects of the disease in such a short period of time,” said Saad. “This illustrates the importance of research to study the mystery of obscure infectious diseases; it is like a puzzle where you have to bring pieces together in an appropriate manner to be able to see a meaningful picture.”
NAMRU-3’s mission is to study, monitor, and detect emerging and re-emerging disease threats of military and public health importance; develop mitigation strategies against these threats in partnership with host nations and international and U.S. agencies in CENTCOM, EUCOM, and AFRICOM areas of responsibility.