As public health historians mark the 100th anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, experts at the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa are using cutting-edge scientific technology to quickly and accurately identify various infectious diseases, including influenza.
“The state hygienic lab has a long history of service to Iowa,” says Dr. Michael Pentella, clinical professor of epidemiology in the University of Iowa College of Public Health, a clinical microbiologist, and director of the State Hygienic Lab. “Too often, because much of our work is done for other government agencies, the public isn’t aware of the University of Iowa’s contribution. But there’s an extraordinary level of expertise and innovation that goes into our work, work that protects the health and well-being of Iowans every day of every year.”
Iowa’s laboratory microbiologists and molecular scientists have a distinguished record of leadership in combating infectious diseases. They were among the first in the nation to successfully detect the deadly H1N1 swine flu in 2009, and also created a novel test to detect the mumps in 2006 when that virus affected nearly 1,500 Iowans.
Dr. Pentella was appointed director of the State Hygienic Lab in 2018, in the midst of one of the worst flu seasons in recent history. During the 2017–18 flu season, 270 Iowans died, double the total from the year before. In preparation for the 2018–19 flu season, Dr. Pentella and his staff recently issued guidelines for influenza surveillance testing and are encouraging Iowa residents to get the flu vaccine.
“The State Hygienic Lab works with the Iowa Department of Public Health to conduct surveillance activities,” says Dr. Pentella. “Our specific role is laboratory-based surveillance, where we test for the influenza virus. If we detect it, we determine the subtype and strain of influenza infecting the patient.”
Besides his work at the state hygienic lab, Dr. Pentella also teaches infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Iowa College of Public Health, where he brings his experience managing viruses into the classroom. Dr. Pentella co-teaches the course with Dr. Christine Petersen, associate professor of epidemiology and director of the UI’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Dr. Petersen says she appreciates the strong connection that exists between the lab and the college, one that fosters exciting research topics.
“Currently we’ve got researchers studying the body’s immune response to the flu, as well as the connection between fever and the onset of the flu,” she says. “There’s even research regarding a possible connection between flooding and the flu. It’s critical that we have a better understanding of the flu virus because flu can be deadly.”
This story is adapted from the original article in IOWANow.