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OSU professor studying spread of flu-like diseases

Flu season in Ohio often precedes Thanksgiving and extends as long as winter’s freezing temperatures persist. And even though predicting turkey sales and snowfall are safe bets at this time of year, influenza strains vary by location and time, making the manufacture of effective vaccines as much luck as it is science.

One Ohio State researcher is working to take some of the guesswork out of that equation by studying similar diseases in African cattle.

OSU professor Rebecca Garabed has created a computer modeling program that forecasts the spread of flu-like diseases among a population of cattle in Cameroon. The modeling program could one day be applied to the spread of influenza among a human population.

“The majority of human disease-modeling programs are the equivalent of early weather forecasting,” Garabed said. “In the beginning, it was more ‘Uncle Joe’s toe is sore today. It’s going to rain.’ But now it’s based on a mathematical modeling system. It’s imperfect but improved.”

Foot-and-mouth disease among livestock is comparable to the flu, she said.

“Like the flu, there are lots of different strains of foot-and-mouth disease. Like the flu, the vaccine has to match the strain to be effective,” Garabed said.

Garabed’s research predicts which strains of foot-and-mouth disease might hit a population at a given time. That allows for advanced production of a vaccine to prevent an epidemic among Cameroon’s livestock population.

Back at OSU, Student Health Services vaccinated 6,900 students last year against swine flu and the seasonal variety of the flu. This year, it is preparing for flu season with seven flu shot programs scheduled throughout Autumn Quarter.

“The strains we’re expecting to see all over the world change every year,” said Dr. Roger Miller, preventive medicine physician at OSU’s Student Health Services.

Garabed became interested in epidemiology, the study of patterns of health and illness, while studying animal bioscience at Penn State University. She remembers thinking, “I want to be an epidemiologist” after seeing a presentation by a renowned epidemiologist at a pre-vet club event.

Strong mathematical skills and an interest in disease led Garabed to pursue disease-modeling computer programs at the University of California, Davis. After graduating with a doctoral degree in epidemiology, Garabed began to look for programs that would let her map the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in livestock in underdeveloped countries. OSU’s anthropology department had a program that could do that.

Garabed now teaches in OSU’s Department of Preventive Medicine. She spends two to three months a year in Cameroon, continuing to collect data. Although she admits her goal might not be reached soon, Garabed hopes one day to eradicate foot-and-mouth disease from Cameroon.  

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