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May 30, 2006

Virologist at ULM works to quell fear

Scientific reports on health concerns like bird flu are issued seemingly every week, painting doom-and-gloom pictures for the public that only grow with each new, exaggerated made-for-TV movie.

Potential crises like a bird flu pandemic and biological terrorist strikes are major concerns worldwide, but research, education and preparation for many of mankind's fears are occurring at local universities and businesses.

Victor Hsia, who has been in Monroe for nearly two years, has essentially become the University of Louisiana at Monroe's resident virologist in the College of Pharmacy.

His primary area of research is actually developing treatment and, ultimately, a cure for herpes. But his top areas of interest also include bird flu and HIV/AIDS, which he discusses in many of his lectures with students.

"(Bird flu) is a hot topic and the students and general public have a lot of concerns about it," Hsia said. "As pharmacists, they'll need to answer those questions."

Education is the key to prepare people, but also to quell unrealistic fears, he said.

"Nobody says 100 percent there's going to be a pandemic," Hsia said. "But sooner or later, the bird flu will mutate into a form that will (transfer) from humans."

That could happen soon, but it could also take many years to occur. When it does, it may not be particularly potent and could only pose smaller threats to children and the elderly, he said.

The key now is who will win the race between flu vaccine development and the mutation of the virus, he said.

"Hopefully, we'll win this race," said Hsia, who has expanded his short lectures on the subject to the community and his Baptist church.

But the College of Pharmacy prepares in other ways beyond faculty research and education, Pharmacy Dean Lamar Pritchard said.

ULM participates in the pharmacy's Strategic National Stockpile to release vaccines and pharmaceutical treatments in case of attacks and disease outbreaks.

That includes anything from anthrax attacks to the bird flu or even an existing influenza outbreak, Pritchard said.

All of these become larger threats with modern travel, allowing diseases to jump from continent to continent and mutate with greater ease, he said.

The state has recognized the college's contributions, especially after ULM played a key role in dispensing medications to hurricane evacuees last year, he said.

ULM's research into viral infections and other issues like cancer continues to grow, Pritchard said. ULM also collaborates with Louisiana Tech University and Louisiana State University.

Outside of the university realm, local companies like AOSS Medical Supply are making millions of bird flu kits annually that include gloves, isolation gowns, face masks, alcohol hand gel, biohazard bags and other items to combat bird flu in case of an outbreak or for use when disposing of a dead bird.

AOSS CEO Eric Liew was actually in Hong Kong and hurried back to the U.S. during the first bird flu outbreak in 1997 in Hong Kong.

"I'm proactive, and I want the community to know this is serious stuff," Liew said. "I pray to God it doesn't happen in this country, but you and me don't have a crystal ball."

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