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Levitt Fellow Allison Gaston-Enholm '09 Studying the Next Big Epidemic

By Lisbeth Redfield
Posted July 20, 2007
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As far as the average reader is concerned, avian flu is somewhere near West Nile virus: a danger, but a slightly dated one. After two winters of hype and no flu the fear has become a bit passé. But Allison Gaston-Enholm '09 (Atlanta, Ga.), who has a Levitt Fellowship this summer to research contingency plans for the avian flu, wants you to know two things: avian flu is potentially very dangerous, and just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't.

Avian flu, a type of influenza adapted to birds, can be deadly to humans. The virus which causes avian flu is not limited to birds; it can be passed between birds, pigs, and humans. Although several cases of avian flu have been detected, there is no evidence, yet, that the virus can be passed from human to human. When it does, the papers warn us, that is the time to worry.

Avian flu is for the most part untreatable but after two years of well-publicized discussion, many countries have contingency plans for dealing with avian flu should it break out in pandemic proportions. Gaston-Enholm's work this summer focuses on the contingency plans of Nigeria and South Africa.

"Africa is at even more risk than the U.S.," said Gaston-Enholm, explaining that she chose Nigeria and South Africa because of their particular position regarding avian flu. Not only are these two governments already overburdened by the HIV/AIDS crisis, but the living conditions (especially in Nigeria) are those which encourage avian flu: farmers living in close conditions with pigs and domesticated poultry.

Over all, there appear to be very few plans for Africa and the avian flu. The WHO and the African Union have put in plans for surveillance and preventative measures, but Gaston-Enholm is not optimistic. She originally felt that Nigeria would have a bad contingency plan but that its more wealthy neighbor South Africa would have an exemplary one; now she admits that neither country has good plans. "I bet Hamilton's got a better plan than the whole country of Nigeria," she said.

"There aren't a lot of plans -- which is kind of my point," Gaston-Enholm concluded. She will focus her project on the lack of contingency measures and what is missing from the outlines which are in place. "It's all about details," she said and explained that the contingency plans could be made far more effective by considering specifics: which schools will close? Who will receive vaccination or medicine first? Will the mail and public bus systems continue to operate? Will religious practices be allowed to continue?

A first-time summer researcher, Gaston-Enholm came to the project because of her interest in public health. Hamilton does not offer public health classes and Gaston-Enholm, a government major, saw the Levitt fellowship as a chance to work on something different. "When you're passionate about something, it's a great way to get an opportunity to work on [it]," she said.

During the year, Gaston-Enholm is president of the Class of 2009 and heavily involved in Student Assembly. She also works as head of advertising for the Continental magazine and is a member of the Mock Trial team. She hopes to work in public relations after graduation, although after this summer's work she is also considering some aspect of public health.

Gaston-Enholm's research this summer is funded by the Levitt Research Fellows Program, operated through the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center. The students spend the summer working intensively in collaboration with a faculty member on an issue related to public affairs; Gaston-Enholm is collaborating with Professor of Government Stephen Orvis.

-- by Lisbeth Redfield

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