The influenza virus can be carried by airborne particles, and not just spread through contact, according to the results of a two-year study conducted by the West Virginia University Department of Emergency Medicine and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. However researchers don’t know yet whether those particles can cause flu. The studies have been published in a prestigious scientific journal and nominated for a national award.

Researchers used air samplers to capture particles in the WVU Emergency Department during the 2008 flu season and in WVU Urgent Care during the 2009 flu season. Air particles were captured through stationary air samplers in patient rooms and waiting areas. Some staff members also wore backpack-like samplers, a personal bioaerosol cyclone sampler, which drew in air through a portable vacuum pump.

In addition, rapid flu tests were given to each patient in Urgent Care exam rooms. This information allowed the team to correlate the particles collected in the samplers with the patients in the room.

“On the busiest day for influenza patients, we detected airborne particles containing influenza in every location in the Urgent Care clinic. We also found that much of the influenza virus was contained in very small particles that can drift for a long time and are easy to inhale,” Bill Lindsley, Ph.D., NIOSH researcher, said.

“In a sense, we weren’t surprised by the results, simply because no one had ever done this in a medical clinic before, so we really didn’t know what to expect,” Lindsley said. “Before this project, the only reported study looking at the amount of airborne influenza virus anywhere was done by us the previous year in the WVU Emergency Department.”

Steve Davis, director of clinical research for WVU Emergency Medicine, said this knowledge could make a big difference in flu prevention in the future. “Now that we know that influenza is in fact being carried by airborne particles, the next step is to determine if those air particles can cause infection and, if so, what factors like temperature or humidity affect how infectious they are.”

The paper written about the Emergency Department portion of the study, “Measurement of Airborne Influenza Virus in a Hospital Emergency Department,” which was published in the journal “Clinical Infectious Diseases” in 2009, was nominated for a Charles C. Shepard Science Award. The awards recognize excellence in science achievement by CDC authors of outstanding scientific papers.

The article on the Urgent Care portion of the study was published in the March 2010 issue of “Clinical Infectious Diseases.” The Special Libraries Association named “Clinical Infectious Diseases” one of the “100 Most Influential Journals in Biology and Medicine” of the past 100 years.

Rashida Khakoo, M.D., and Melanie Fisher, M.D., WVU infectious disease specialists, were also part of the research team. Dr. Fisher will travel to Atlanta to represent WVU at the Shepard Award ceremony on June 28.



CONTACTS: Angela Jones, HSC News Service

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