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Tropical Medicine Experts Meet in Miami

The world's leading experts on tropical diseases and tropical medicine ended several days of meetings in Miami, Florida on Thursday. The 53rd Meeting of The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, examined a broad array of topics ranging from a new potential malaria vaccine to the latest developments in genomic research, which could save millions of lives in the future.

More than 2,000 physicians and scientists met to exchange information on new emerging viruses, the latest developments in vaccines for West Nile virus and malaria and other diseases, and other topics such as polio eradication, and preventative measures for diseases that pose potential bio-terrorism threats, including small pox and plague.

Dr. Edward Ryan, the Director of the Tropical and Geographic Medicine Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the program chair of this year's meeting, says of particular interest are new findings in Genomic research, which could unlock the genetic codes of diseases that kill millions every year.

"There are a couple of areas that are exciting," said Edward Ryan. "Number one; we are beginning to see the fruition of the involvement of some of our genomic advances, that is if you remember, a number of organisms have been recently sequenced to find out the DNA, of those organisms. We are finally beginning to see things come out of that. We are beginning to learn what that DNA is encoding, the proteins, and those proteins are fundamental to us developing improved vaccines, or improved therapeutics, so new drugs, new vaccines, or even new diagnostics, so if someone is sick with an infection we can tell rapidly tell what they have. Those are important advances, and we are seeing more and more advances in those areas."

Experts at the meeting heard exciting news about clinical trials for a new malaria vaccine. Dr. Pedro Alonso of Barcelona, Spain's University Hospital, is the principal investigator of the study.

"The study was the first one to evaluate this vaccine in young African children of one to four years of age," said Pedro Alonso. "The vaccine has shown to be safe, has been shown to be immunogenic, that it has produced a type of immunological response that we were looking for, and more importantly it has shown to be efficacious, it has reduced the risk of clinical malaria in these children by 30 percent. It has reduced new infections by 45 percent and perhaps more tantalizing is the observation that it has reduced viral malaria, a very serious condition, often associated with death by 58 percent.

Dr. Alonso says a malaria vaccine could be introduced in five years, saving millions of lives.

Participants also heard warnings that global health authorities are not prepared to cope with a potential deadly epidemic of Bird Flu, which has so far this year killed more than 30 people, mostly in Thailand and Vietnam. A senior official of the World Health Organization warned the flu vaccine cannot be stockpiled, and that current production capacity of 300 million doses is not nearly enough of what would be needed if a pandemic occurred.

Dr. Russell Coleman, the Assistant Chief of the Department of Entomology at Walter Reed Hospital, just outside Washington D.C. came to Miami to exchange information on Leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease spread by the bite of infected sand flies. The disease has emerged a recent threat to the hundreds of thousand of U.S. service personnel now on military duty in Iraq. Dr. Coleman says the exchange of ideas he has experienced over the past several days has been invaluable.

"The nice thing about this meeting is that we have people from all over the world coming here," he said. "People who deal with these diseases day and day out in the countries that they live in, and they have a lot of expertise. You just cannot go to the literature and pick up a journal article and read about it. You sit here and talk with them one on one, and pick their brains for those critical nuggets of information that they have. That is the advantage here. I have talked with most the experts in the world at one location."

Dr. Coleman says if a cure for Leishmaniasis can be found not only will U.S. Service personnel benefit, but so will millions of others who live in regions where the disease is rampant.