UQ researcher fights Avian Influenza

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Family, health and loyalty to her Vietnamese cultural heritage are three things that are very important to Doan Thanh Tam.

When she was asked to be involved in researching a vaccine for Avian Influenza at The University of Queensland she says she was both honored, and excited at the chance to return to Australia.

The deciding factor however was her love for Vietnam and the chance to make a difference in an area that is desperate for a cure.

Born and raised in the peaceful rural province of An Giang, located in the Mekong Delta, Tam grew up surrounded by agriculture and the belief that success stemmed from hard work and dedication.

Tam has witnessed first hand the crippling effect Avian Influenza has had on the farming community, the economy and the health sector in Vietnam.

“It’s hard to believe the damage one infected chicken can have on so many people,” she says.

“It really does affect everyone, huge numbers of chickens are culled; as a result the price of food increases, and farmers are left with a huge burden from loss of stock.”

Ducks contained in enclosure.

Containing infected poultry in enclosures is key to preventing the spread of disease.

After completing a Bachelor degree in Biotechnology at An Giang University, in 2009 Tam made the difficult decision to leave her family along with the comfort and familiarity of Vietnam to embark on a journey to continue her education in Australia.

“It had always been a dream of mine,” she says with a smile, ”I wanted to get the best education possible, and while I was nervous to leave my family I was excited at what Australia could offer me.”

The initial decision to study abroad allowed Tam complete her Masters of Biotechnology at The University of Queensland.

Tam’s commitment, exemplary results and passion for research then led to an offer from the university to complete her PhD in researching a vaccine for Avian Influenza.

Avian influenza remains a serious problem in Vietnam.

This year two cases of H5N1 have been detected, with both resulting in deaths. Although awareness of the disease has increased and education into preventative measures have been widely adopted, there is yet to be a breakthrough in the development of a vaccine.

Nguyen Thanh Truong, the head of Avian Influenza research at The Tropical Disease Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, says early treatment and diagnosis is vital especially when considering the use of the antiviral drug, Oseltamivir (Tamiflu).

“If we discover the disease early and administer treatment early then we have a greater chance of survival in patients. Without a vaccine this is currently our only hope,” Mr Truong says.

It is a frightening but brutal reality for any farmer that a single infected bird could lead to the loss of all their stock, their livelihood.

For this reason preventative measures starting at the source of the problem, the poultry farms, have been widely adopted by farmers in Vietnam.

Mr Truong explains education programs implemented by the government coupled with the introduction of stricter health regulations have managed to decrease the rate of infection from 61 cases in 2005 to two cases in 2013.

“These programs have made a huge difference, but more still needs to be done. People need to be aware of the food they are eating, its origin and whether it has passed health regulations,” he says.

Dr Nguyen Thanh Truong, Head of Avian Influenza at The Tropical Diseases Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City.

Dr Nguyen Thanh Truong says while vaccination in poultry has helped decrease cases, the future remains uncertain.

Mr Truong says the 60 per cent mortality rate is a worrying statistic for all involved and one that requires urgent action in the form of a vaccine.

This point is echoed by Tam when she discusses the current stage of research at UQ. The development of a vaccine has been hindered by the virus’ rapid capacity for mutation nature of the disease, with new strains constantly forming.

The passion Tam possesses for the project is evident in the way she explains the research and problems the group has encountered so far with a look of deep concentration.

“Currently I’m working on screening method, this allows us to work out if the structure of the antigen we are using is different to the native form before we begin the testing process,” she says.

The challenge of this is creating vaccine technology that is able to be adapted quickly to meet any mutations of the virus.

Research into vaccine development in Vietnam has often been hampered by the lack of funding available.

Projects such as the one Tam is involved in could become internationally significant in providing technology to combat a global issue.

The prospect of contributing to this cause and potentially making a difference in Vietnam is an exciting one for Tam and something that would make her educational experience in Australia even more special.

“When I am finished my PhD here I hope to continue my research on Avian Influenza back in Vietnam,” she says.

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Rebecca Campbell

Rebecca Campbell is in her third year of studying a dual degree in a Bachelor of Journalism and Bachelor of Law at The University of Queensland. Rebecca is particularly interested in investigative journalism and pursuing a career in print or television news. Her dream job would be to work as a foreign correspondent, combining her love of travel and learning about different cultures with working in news and current affairs. Rebecca has gained experience by freelancing for local newspapers and hopes to widen her experience through more internships while she continues her study.

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