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Pitt launches study of mosquito-borne diseases

Wes Venteicher
| Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015, 5:59 p.m.

The University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research is beginning a $7.6 million study of rare but deadly diseases that could potentially be used in bioterrorism.

The Department of Defense-funded study could produce vaccines or drugs to fight a group of viruses that mosquitoes carry and that can easily be made inhalable, making them potential weapons, said Amy Hartman, the project's principal investigator and an assistant professor of infectious disease and microbiology at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health.

“We want to be prepared for either a natural outbreak of these viruses or a man-made one,” Hartman said.

The study will focus on eastern, western and Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis, she said. Existing in pockets scattered around the Western Hemisphere, the viruses are most prevalent in horses but can infect humans as well.

The fatality rate may be as high as 90 percent in those infected, but infections are rare, according to the Center for Food Security & Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Only 85 people were infected with eastern equine encephalitis from 2004 to 2013, according to the CDC, and 34 died. Figures were not available on the CDC website for the other two types.

Mosquitoes transmit the viruses from birds and rodents to large animals, according to the Center for Food Security & Public Health.

Little is known about the mechanisms of the diseases the viruses cause, Hartman said. Pitt researchers will study the viruses in animals and test vaccines that could then be tested in humans, she said.

“By the end, we hope to have a much better understanding of the disease process, and we hope to have evaluated at least one new antiviral therapy.”

Wes Venteicher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or wventeicher@tribweb.com.

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