Diseases that originate in animals and transfer to humans - like the feared "bird flu" virus - pose a significant threat to food security and public health.
Soon to come is a new portable veterinary diagnostic kit that could make all the difference in the global fight against such diseases. Targets include the spread of avian influenza and other viruses that can disable and kill wildlife, farm animals and humans.
The device uses isotope technology to detect the presence of viruses, and could be widely available by March 2009. It was jointly developed by a US-based company, Smiths Detection, and the IAEA, through its Joint Division with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Vets or even persons with basic animal husbandry training can use the device, taking the test out of the lab and into the field where disease is present. It takes less than two hours to know the results.
"Using traditional ways it takes about a week to identify and characterise the avian influenza virus. With nuclear-related molecular technologies, we can do that in a morning and confirm it in the afternoon," says Gerrit Viljoen, Head of the IAEA´s Section on Animal Production and Health.
Mr. Viljoen explains how the device works.
"The basic package is two things - one is the instrument, and the other one is the module we use in the instrument to detect H5N1 avian influenza. It´s almost like a compact disc (CD) player and a CD. The CD player plays any CD. But a CD contains specific music. And this case is exactly the same. The machine can play any module that we put into it. Our module for this exercise was the H5N1 subtype of avian influenza. We can put in Rift Valley Fever, we can put in HIV/AIDS, we can put in any other module into this machine. So it´s a compatible machine and it´s extendable. That´s why it´s of so much interest to us."
In the last century, 70% of all emerging and re-emerging human diseases originated from animals and jumped to man. These are called zoonotic diseases. The important ones at the moment are avian influenza, West Nile virus, Ebola virus, and Rift Valley Fever, which killed hundreds of people in Kenya and Sudan within the last two years. The new highly pathogenic Avian influenza strains are not only killing poultry but pose a real threat to man. From 1918-1920 the avian influenza virus, also know at the time as Spanish flu, killed about 40 million people.
"That´s why everyone´s so scared of a new outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza that would jump from chickens to humans," says Mr. Viljoen.
The virus recently resurfaced, and has killed 245 people in 12 countries within the last five years.
Changing climatic conditions also mean that diseases are moving to places that previously weren´t affected. Such problems increase the challenges to food security, which is a top priority for the IAEA. Avian flu threatens human lives and the amount of food that´s left available to communities if the virus decimates livestock.
Through their Joint Division, the IAEA and FAO are working to have the portable veterinary diagnostic kits in wide use within five months.
"We are funding the fast-track development of a module for H5N1 and highly pathogenic avian influenza. Because it´s not just the H5N1, there are many different strains of the virus. But we first want to make sure that we are able to detect the naughtiest strains," says Mr. Viljoen.
The IAEA has contracted Smiths Detection to further develop the modules and to evaluate and validate their applicability in field trials. The current machine can run five different tests simultaneously and would cost approximately US $30,000. This is much cheaper than the equipment now being used in laboratories.
Mr. Viljoen says, "They are working on a one-module prototype which will cost about US $1000, which makes it affordable to all developing countries. People will have to pay something, but we hope to make it as cheap as possible so that any veterinary service can afford this technology to protect mankind and the animals they depend upon for their livelihood."