As the number of H1N1 cases at universities increases, Duke University is using a new diagnostic method to study the spread of viruses — testing sick students and paying them for their time.
Researchers are studying 500 to 800 freshman students living on the East Campus of Duke University to observe how respiratory viral infections, such as H1N1, spread in closed communities and how to identify sicknesses before the symptoms appear.
“We are researching respiratory viral infections, and H1N1 faces a lot of our interest,” said Chris Woods, leader of the project and an associate professor at the department of medicine at Duke.
The project is being funded by the U.S. Department of Defense to determine how they can better protect their personnel from illness and use their resources more efficiently, Woods said.
The project will be costly, but the exact amount is unknown yet, Woods said.
This is the third version of infectious respiratory illness research and the second time they’ve invited students to participate.
Since the H1N1 outbreak, students have become much more interested in this type of research, he said. However, H1N1 is only one aspect the project explores, he said.
Students living on East Campus were selected because that part of campus tends to have more out-of-state students, providing diversity for researchers, he said.
Duke student government and administrators worked together to choose East Campus freshmen as the focus group.
Freshmen are ideal for the research because they are being exposed to a new environment and are not used to the stresses of college life, making them the most likely to contract local infections, he said.
The research process begins once a student indicates some type of sickness. Researchers then take a specimen of the student’s blood, conduct a diagnostic test and determine which virus caused the sickness.
The researchers do not infect students with viruses — they wait for students to develop a sickness.
“We know for sure that some students in the group will eventually fall sick,” he said.
“High percentages of people become sick in clusters, because the virus spreads around easily.”
Woods said the study might have other advantages, besides making some extra money, for students participating in the research.
The project gives the participants a great opportunity to learn the scientific process of researching infectious diseases, he said.
Renee McCoy, director of public affairs for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said the research is especially valuable for its focus on the young — the group most affected by H1N1.
The results of the Duke research will be used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in fighting strains of the flu and other viruses across the state, she said.
No research of seasonal flu or H1N1 is being conducted by UNC Hospitals because UNC does not have any specialists in infectious diseases, said David Weber, assistant dean of the UNC Department of Medicine.
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