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CDC expands Arctic lab to fight disease, bioterrorism in Alaska

February 8th 1:48 pm | Alex DeMarban Print this article   Email this article   Create a Shortlink for this article

A federal disease-fighting program in Alaska recently doubled its laboratory space, a move designed to further protect residents from deadly pathogens, including bioterrorism threats.

Officials with the Arctic Investigations Program in Anchorage, part of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unveiled the $2.3 million renovation and addition in Anchorage, near the Alaska Native Medical Center, late last month.

For decades, the CDC has played a critical role in preventing the spread of disease in Alaska. More labs will lead to more advances, especially in rural Alaska, said officials attending the ceremony.

"This lab is really our eyes and ears for any kind of infectious problems that come up in Alaska," said Dr. Ted Mala, head of the traditional healing clinic at Southcentral Foundation, after the ribbon-cutting. "They survey all our villages and all our lands and give us early warnings of what's going on and what to look for, along with the state divisions of epidemiology and public health."

"What's important here is this lab will mean more testing, more surveillance, more early warning," said Mala, an Inupiaq enrolled in Buckland's tribal government. "The more they know, the more they'll tell all the doctors and nurses and clinicians in the state. It's all a win-win."

The CDC has been fighting disease in Alaska with the Indian Health Service since 1948, said Mala.

One of the biggest victories may have come in the war against Hepatitis B. Alaska Natives once suffered the country's highest rates of the liver disease, as well as Hepatitis A, but now have the lowest rates thanks to vaccines introduced in the 1980s and 1990s, said Brian McMahon, a liver specialist at the Alaska Native Medical Center.

"The important question we're asking now is how long will the protection last?" McMahon said. "So to do that, we have groups of people enrolled in studies, where we follow their blood to see how long their protective antibodies are present. All that laboratory testing is done down here in this lab. So now we can tell people they're protected for 20, 30 years and if they ever need a booster we'll know when to do it before they get ill."

CDC officials at the lab have also identified causes for ulcers and stomach cancers, said Chris Mandregan, director of the Indian Health Service in Alaska.

"So what they've done is taken science and helped us translate it to treatment and better medical outcomes, so for them to have expanded capabilities is really an asset for the entire state," he said.

Thomas Hennesy, Arctic Investigations director, said officials are studying the success of a new vaccine -- pneumococcal conjugate vaccine 13 -- that has been widely used in rural Alaska.

Alaska Native children have some of the highest rates of streptococcus pneumonia, a major cause of pneumonia, in the world. Through the lab, the center will learn how the vaccine affects disease rates, changes in resistance and transmission within families, according to a written statement from the center.

Fighting RSV

The AIP lab is also battling respiratory syncitial virus, the most common cause of hospitalization for children. It runs rampant in rural Alaska each winter, in large part because of the lack of running water and flush toilets.

Some villages experience rates dozens of times higher than those in the Lower 48, he said.

RSV can cause severe congestion and intense breathing problems, and lead to pneumonia and bronchiolitis.

AIP is tracking hospitalization rates and has found that a costly treatment available for the highest-risk children has helped reduce rates. Hennesy would like to see such treatments expanded.

Work on a number of ongoing research projects designed to reduce the risk of RSV infection will take place in the expanded lab, said Hennesy.

Finally, the expanded lab space will help the program respond to bioterrorism threats, such as anthrax and tularemia.

The building is a collaboration of the Indian Health Service, which owns the building, the Alaska Division of Public Health, which housed many of the center's employees during the renovation, and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

It includes new office space and unique safety features, such as hallway shower heads in case of accidental exposure to harmful chemicals, a hi-tech oven to burn off dangerous substances, and biosafety cabinets with "negative airflow" that draws away harmful pathogens as technicians work with samples.

 


Alex DeMarban can be reached at alex@alaskanewspapers.com

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