Battling the flu without vaccine?


The University of Pittsburgh plans to work with the Pittsburgh Public Schools to investigate ways to battle the flu that do not involve vaccines or other pharmaceuticals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this week that Pitt is among eight centers that will share $5.2 million in grants to assess the effect of hand-washing, the wearing of masks, or other protective measures that could be used during a flu pandemic.

Details of the Pitt study are still being developed, though officials said it could begin this flu season.

Researchers may work with the families of selected students who fall ill with the flu to assess how the virus is transmitted in the home and the most effective ways to limit its spread, said Dr. Donald Burke, principal investigator of the local study and dean of the university's Graduate School of Public Health.

Participating schools have not been selected. But the project may initially focus on two schools with students in kindergarten through fifth grade or kindergarten through eighth grade, said Janet Yuhasz, coordinator of student wellness for the Pittsburgh schools. Plans call for expanding the project later to other schools.

Other partners in the local project include the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the Pitt medical school and the state and Allegheny County health departments.

Besides Pitt, others receiving the grants are the University of California, Berkeley; RTI International; the University of Hong Kong; the University of Michigan; Columbia University; the University of Otago in New Zealand; and the University of Massachusetts.

Because developing a vaccine against a pandemic flu strain could take several months, non-pharmaceutical approaches "may serve as a first line of defense," the CDC said in a statement. But little scientific research exists on the effectiveness and potential impact of such strategies.

They haven't been studied because "first of all, it's not easy. And second, there hasn't been explicit funding," said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "Attention has been given to getting vaccine out there, which everyone agrees is fundamental to influenza control."

Announcement of the grants came as the CDC is working to develop a plan for utilizing the strategies in a killer flu outbreak until vaccines or other treatments became available.

State and local governments have asked for unusually detailed and specific advice on such matters as closing schools and canceling public events, one CDC official said.

Some of those approaches "have enormous implications beyond interrupting transmission" of the flu, Dr. Schaffner said, noting that extended school closures, for example, could pose a huge challenge for working parents.