Keeping Hawai'i disease-free
By Duane J. Gubler and Dr. Chiyome Leinaala Fukino
Global health research being done here in Hawai'i by the University of Hawai'i and others, and surveillance by the state Department of Health, is extremely important work when one considers that across the globe, 1,500 people die every hour from infectious disease, the leading cause of illness and death worldwide.
While global statistics on infectious disease may not seem relevant to Hawai'i, a look at trends in Asia brings the urgency of the situation into sharp focus.
The world's population growth over the past 25 years has been concentrated in the cities of Asia, a trend that is expected to continue. Along with that growth in population has come an increase in infectious disease epidemics originating in Asia — pneumonic plague, avian influenza, Nipah encephalitis and SARS.
Hawai'i is the gateway to the United States from the Asia-Pacific region and is the most geographically isolated populated landmass in the world, making our ability to develop effective early warning disease-detection systems a matter of survival.
The Asia-Pacific Institute of Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases of the John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawai'i-Manoa, is working with the Hawai'i Department of Health, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Defense, the East-West Center and the private biotechnology sector to develop a global center of excellence for infectious diseases that focuses on the Asia-Pacific region. A major component of that program is to enhance the laboratory capacity needed for early-warning disease detection. The goal is to maximize our ability to detect, identify and contain introduced pathogens before they spread widely in the community, protecting public health, and safeguarding Hawai'i's visitor industry, a vital component of the state's economy.
Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) laboratory space in the state is inadequate to support the type of disease-detection system needed, posing a true threat to our well-being. The plan is to build a new BSL-3 laboratory on the Kaka'ako campus of JABSOM using a grant from the NIH and matching funds from the state. This will provide a secure working environment where pathogens can be studied safely to augment a public health response and will supplement the Department of Health's plan to conduct BSL-3 surveillance analyses at its Waimano Ridge Laboratory. We want to avoid having to send samples to Mainland laboratories for analysis. Delays in conducting analyses add to Hawai'i's risk.
We take community concerns about health, safety and security very seriously, and are addressing those concerns in the new laboratory's design and in our operating policies and procedures. As we progress through the planning, design and construction phases of the new laboratory, we'll be diligent in keeping people informed and in listening to and addressing their concerns.
As part of the NIH network of global health research, the new Pacific Regional Biosafety Laboratory will be built to the most stringent national and international design and safety standards. These laboratories are built to withstand natural disasters and have security measures in place to protect them against multiple threat scenarios. They are operated under strict federal regulations and protocols that insure a safe work environment and a safe shutdown in case of an emergency. An important fact for the community to know is that there has never been a pathogen escape into the surrounding community from any of the hundreds of BSL-3 laboratories in the U.S.
With the risk of an emerging infectious disease increasing as global transportation continues to expand, it is imperative that we take steps now to protect the people of the state by anticipating and preparing for a worst-case scenario. We need to increase capability and capacity to detect, identify and control diseases that could be introduced. The new PacRBL will complement the robust testing capabilities of the Department of Health State Laboratories Division, and improve statewide efforts to prevent and control infectious disease rapidly and effectively.
And, as we do our part to contribute to a healthier Hawai'i and world, we'll also be contributing to a more robust state economy by creating high-paying jobs in the biotech industry, protecting the visitor industry and enhancing Hawai'i's reputation as an emerging leader in the biosciences.