Tue | Sep 24, 2019

Don’t let up on fighting epidemics, scientist warns

Published:Sunday | February 24, 2019 | 12:21 AMNadine Wilson-Harris - Staff Reporter
Lionel Rookwood/Photographer
Professor Robert Gallo makes a point during an interview with The Sunday Gleaner. In the background is Joshua Anzinger.
Lionel Rookwood/Photographer Professor Robert Gallo makes a point during an interview with The Sunday Gleaner. In the background is Joshua Anzinger.

Failure to fund research and awareness campaigns on epidemic diseases is a major threat to public health, an internationally renowned scientist has warned.

Dr Robert Gallo, a professor of microbiology and immunology, has urged the Jamaican Government to resist the inclination to redeploy funding and resources when disease outbreaks subside and concerns about public health decrease.

“When things disappear and there is no longer any serious epidemic at the door, governments and people tend to forget about it, and they put money in other directions,” said Gallo, who is co-credited for discovering HIV, the precursor to AIDS. “But viruses don’t go away, they will only return to say hello again, one or another or more.”

The provisional expenditure for the 2017-2018 fiscal year for institutional strengthening to improve national surveillance, prevention and control of infectious diseases was $15.7 million. No estimate was given in either the 2018-19 or 2019-2020 budgets.

Co-founder and director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, Gallo has championed vigorous public-education campaigns to keep disease top of mind of populations. He also criticised opponents of wide-scale vaccination programmes.

“You need an educated population; you need to get rid of the stupidity about vaccines. You know the anti-vaccine movements are out there in the world,” he said.

Gallo said that besides the great unknown, influenza presents a constant threat to global societies.

“Influenza is always there and always threatening to be big. Until we have the universal flu vaccine that works against all influenza and works well, this will always be knocking on the door,” said Gallo, who referred to the influenza pandemic of 1918, polio in the 1950s, and the emergence of AIDS in the 1970s as the greatest epidemics over the last century.

Jamaica’s health ministry put the island on influenza alert more than a week ago because of increasing reports of patients presenting with symptoms, including fever and respiratory complications. Approximately 22,000 doses of flu vaccine were purchased and distributed islandwide in late October 2018, but a small percentage of locals who contract the illness procure vaccination.

WANTED A CONNECTION

Gallo, who partnered with two colleagues to start the Global Virus Network in 2011, was a special guest during the official launch of the Global Virus Network (GVN) Centre for Excellence in Jamaica at the University of the West, Mona campus, on Tuesday. There are currently 45 other Centres of Excellence around the world, but Jamaica and Grenada are the only two host countries in the Caribbean. GVN provides access to experts who can speak on a wide range of epidemics, including HIV/AIDS.

“We wanted to have a connection of the highest-level experts in every single kind of virus that is known to possibly infect humans. So if we have an expert in everything, we know we can bring together expertise rapidly,” he said.

Among the issues he discussed with officials during his visit was the economic threat of viruses and the implications of a global response to health concerns.

The professor believes that the establishment of a GVN here will help position Jamaica as “a leader in the Caribbean” for surveillance and research of the spread of viral infections in the region, especially with a wave of mosquito-borne diseases – chikungunya, Zika and dengue – sweeping the country, with deadly consequences, over the past five years.

Director of the Centre of Excellence, Dr Joshua Anzinger, said the diverse expertise provided by the GVN is of tremendous value to Jamaica.

“I think we can do a better job of responding to some of these mosquito-borne viruses, that we should be very much aware of, chikungunya in 2014, then Zika in 2016, and of course we are having a bad dengue epidemic right now. So I think this really helps quite a bit for us to understand what is really going on there,” he said.

Anzinger believes there has been a lot of progress in tackling HIV and reducing AIDS mortality, but said that there was need for more work to fight the epidemic.

“I think one of the biggest issues is finding the people that are infected and getting them on treatment. So knowing your status is still a big issue,” he said.

On Tuesday, Gallo explained the genesis of his early work on HIV.

“We got involved in HIV before it was even called HIV,” he said, recounting the beginnings of his groundbreaking research.

“I was working on leukaemia, I was working on cancer, I was working on viruses that we had discovered related to some human cancers, and I was working my whole career on cancer, but then this thing came along and we think that it is going to be a kind of virus we call a retrovirus from our experience,” he said.

Apart from training virologists, the GVN advises doctors, clinicians and public-health officers around the world about viral diseases to reduce the health burden these epidemics create.

nadine.wilson@gleanerjm.com