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University of Iowa News Release

May 3, 2004

University Hygienic Laboratory Marks 100 Years

In her office at Oakdale Hall, Mary Gilchrist, Ph.D., director of the University of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory (UHL), keeps the original ledger used to record the first diagnostic tests performed at the laboratory.

Gilchrist inherited the thick book -- its yellowed pages filled with handwritten entries -- from her predecessor, William Hausler, Ph.D., when she became director of the UHL in 1995. It serves not only as a historical artifact from another era, but also a reminder of the growing scope of services the UHL provides today.

History is on the mind of Gilchrist and her colleagues a lot these days, as the UHL marks 100 years as the state's environmental and public health laboratory.

The UHL has come a long way since its creation as a permanent part of the University by the Iowa General Assembly in April 1904. Its initial purpose was to identify and study the development of diphtheria, rabies, tuberculosis (TB) and typhoid fever, diseases that were dangerously prevalent in Iowa and the rest of the nation at the beginning of the 20th century.

"Today, it's almost hard to fathom that the life expectancy in the United States 100 years ago was less than 50 years," Gilchrist said. "TB, in particular, was a leading cause of death back then, and the reemergence in recent years of newer, antibiotic-resistant TB strains demonstrates that even old disease threats don't disappear completely."

For people born just a half-century ago, infectious diseases were considered a thing of the past by the time they reached adulthood. In the late 1960s, the U.S. Surgeon General declared the war against infectious diseases to be over, Gilchrist noted.

"But even Surgeons General can be wrong," she said. "In the past 50 years public health measures have succeeded: sanitation, vaccines and antibiotics have eliminated many of the scourges of the past. But now we are in the throes of an era of new and emerging infectious diseases. In fact, our young adults may find this to be 'normal.' We are experiencing the 'new normal' as defined by Dr. Julie Gerberding, the head of the CDC."

In the past few years, hantavirus, SARS, West Nile virus and monkey-pox virus have emerged as new, potentially dangerous diseases to Iowans and the rest of the nation. As it has for the past 100 years, the UHL stands ready to help detect, understand and deal with these and other threats to human health and the environment. Its mission has evolved and expanded to include environmental issues and metabolic disorders.

Following are a few examples of UHL efforts:

* Zachariah Zwerlein was especially precious to his parents, Chris and Alicia Zwerlein of Waterloo, because his older sibling had died of "crib death." When results of Zachariah's newborn screening tests results came back, the baby was found to have tested positive for a disease called MCAD. Since MCAD prevented his body from breaking down fat for energy, Zachariah risked not making it through a night if he was otherwise ill and thus not feeding. But with early MCAD detection, his parents provided watchful care for him to insure that he was feeding when he was sick, and they were able to get the information they needed to help manage the disease. Based at the UHL's satellite facility in Des Moines, the Iowa Neonatal Screening Program is a collaborative effort of the UHL, the Iowa Department of Public Health and the UI Department of Pediatrics. The program analyzes blood samples from every baby born in Iowa for metabolic diseases.

* This spring, a college student on a pilgrimage to India returned home to Fairfield before his incubation period following exposure to measles was over. Unfortunately, his infection became apparent on the plane trip home, and he exposed his fellow passengers. The Iowa Department of Public Health took the lead in defining the people at risk and advising vaccination for those people needing it. UHL specialists tested people for the presence of, and immunity from, the disease. Two additional Iowans were infected from exposure to the initial case.

* After detecting high levels of fecal coliform bacteria in the water at Lake Darling for the past couple of years, UHL specialists began a study (in partnership with Iowa Department of Natural Resources Water Monitoring Program, the Washington County Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the UI Carver College of Medicine) to find the source of the fecal contamination in this watershed. New technologies such as DNA fingerprinting and antibiotic resistance profiles are being employed. Other chemical source-tracking methods such as sterol, caffeine, and cotinine (nicotine by-product) determinations are also being performed. Once the source of contamination is identified, remediation steps may be taken so that beach closures will not spoil future weekends for people who use and enjoy Lake Darling.

* Several years ago, several hundred people in Oskaloosa became ill and 20 were hospitalized. The cause? A holiday turkey dinner that was a fundraiser for a religious organization. The amateur cooks who prepared the meal meant well, but their turkey had arrived late and frozen. Thus, cooking wasn't enough to kill the bacteria that often live on uncooked poultry. Salmonella was found in the food and stool samples from the infected persons, and the DNA fingerprints of the strains matched, implicating the turkey as the source of the infection. UHL staff members did the testing, the Iowa Department of Public Health led the investigation and the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals handled educating and retraining the cooks on appropriate methods for food management.

* When people in six states were infected with monkeypox last year, public health experts scrambled to find the source, since this disease had never before been identified in the United States. It was soon determined that pet prairie dog owners were acquiring the infection from their pets, who had acquired it from exposure to exotic animals, such as giant Gambian pouched rats imported from Africa. One animal breeding operation near Cincinnati, Iowa, in particular, housed some 2,000 of these exotic pets. It is highly likely that the monkeypox infected rodents that had been housed at this farm were the source of the monkeypox infections. A deceased rodent was brought to UHL for testing for monkeypox. Staff members at the UHL were prepared, because of their smallpox readiness training through the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The fact that staff members were vaccinated for smallpox made it safe for them to handle monkeypox. And the testing capabilities to detect smallpox made it possible for UHL to rule out monkeypox.

The UHL also plays an important role in combating bioterrorism. Since 1999 it has been part of the National Laboratory Response Network for Bioterrorism Detection, a CDC program to link hospitals, federal agencies and public health laboratories around the country to detect, track and control outbreaks caused by biological agents. The UHL is one of the laboratories used to test suspected agents submitted by hospitals or other laboratories.

Public education and outreach also are an integral part of the UHL mission. Staff members provide educational sessions to Iowa school kids over the fiber-optic Iowa Communications Network in a collaboration with Iowa Public Television as part of its "K-12 Connections" program. And each summer the UHL hosts talented and gifted youngsters from rural Iowa for a weeklong, hands-on session on aquatic biology. The program - the Wallace Summer Institute for Rural Scholars - is a collaborative effort of the UHL and the UI's Belin-Blank Center.

Gilchrist sees the future role of the UHL as one that is continuously adapting to established and emerging public and environmental health threats. The UHL currently employs a staff of 235 people (189 full-time, 14 part-time, and 22 temporary employees, as well as 10 student workers). This is possible because the UHL's $4 million in state funding leverages more than $12 million from other sources, such as contracts, grants and fees.

"With public health work, we judge success by how well we prevent disease," Gilchrist said. "A food-borne outbreak investigation reveals the source of the contamination and allows us to prevent the next outbreak. Tracking influenza strains that are circulating one winter allows international experts to predict the vaccine composition for the next year. Knowing what wells have pesticides, arsenic or nitrate allows us to guide the well owners about consumption of the water and perhaps prevent further contamination."

These efforts could not be achieved without partnerships at the state and federal levels, Gilchrist noted. What's important, she said, is that good scientific data must be available to guide decision-making.

"Knowledge is what we have now that was not available in the centuries that preceded the 20th century. Let us be influenced by that knowledge," Gilchrist said.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Health Science Relations, 5135 Westlawn, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-1178

MEDIA CONTACT: David Pedersen, (319) 335-8032,