UGA Research Magazine

Averting the Next Pandemic

by Sam Fahmy


Intro   |   What's a Danger, And What's Not   |   Staying Ahead Of The Threat   |  
Taking A Broad Perspective

At A Glance




By studying avian influenza through a range of collaborative inquiries, UGA researchers and their cooperators near and far are seeking to defeat a wily and potentially deadly enemy.

David Stallknecht recalls the first time he saw what avian influenza could do, and it was well before “bird flu”—a term so vague that scientists scoff at it—became the stuff of newspaper headlines and made-for-TV movies.

The year was 1983, and Stallknecht was a field technician working for the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study (SCWDS), a program based at the University of Georgia. He had been sent to Pennsylvania to investigate whether wild birds were involved in an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza in domestic poultry.

On a cold November day, Stallknecht, normally a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy, stepped out of his truck and onto a farm wearing a bright white HazMat-style jumpsuit and a face mask.

(Top) Among the captured birds, wildlife biologists found this purple sandpiper, the first ever banded in Georgia. (Bottom) John Bowers (Left) and David Mixon (Right) of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, attach a band to a wood duck's leg after collecting an avian influenza sample on the Altamaha Wildlife Management Area.

“I remember seeing a flock of domestic guinea fowl with a mortality rate of 90-plus percent,” said Stallknecht. “And although that seems like just a number, when you actually see 90 percent of 12,000 birds lying on the ground it makes an impression. It absolutely makes an impression.”

Stallknecht is now an associate professor in UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine and a scientist at SCWDS, one of the nation’s leading wildlife research groups. In its 50-year history, researchers from SCWDS—or “squidis” as they call it—have investigated cases of sick or dying wildlife in more than 200 species, ranging from white-tailed deer and shorebirds to black bears and bald eagles.

Dr. David Swayne came to avian influenza research in a less dramatic though no less significant way. He had initially wanted to study Marek’s disease, which was deadly to chickens and costly to the poultry industry until 1970, when a vaccine was introduced.

His mentor at Ohio State University, Richard Slemons, suggested that he change his research focus and study avian influenza. “He said, ‘You ought to get away from this Marek’s disease and work on a disease that will last you a lifetime,’” Swayne recalled.

Now, Swayne directs the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory (“Southeast Poultry”), an internationally recognized facility, based in Athens, Georgia, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. For the poultry industry, Southeast Poultry is the equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Working just a few miles apart and often in close collaboration, the two men now find themselves at the forefront of one of society’s most pressing efforts: to understand and ultimately minimize the risks caused by avian influenza viruses, which could threaten wild birds, the state’s $13.5 billion poultry industry and human health.

Together and individually, they’ve racked up a long list of research accomplishments in this field. Still, they realize that plenty more remains to be done.

“You cannot know enough about how these viruses function in nature,” said Stallknecht. “If you do know something about the natural system, when something like [highly pathogenic Asian] H5N1 avian influenza comes down the pike you have an indication of where to look for it, how to look for it, what species to look in, and the probability of it getting here.”


Intro   |   What's a Danger, And What's Not   |   Staying Ahead Of The Threat   |  
Taking A Broad Perspective


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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