New research could dramatically reduce spread of swine flu

Empower & Inspire: Spread Health & Wellness

The spread of swine flu and other infectious diseases could be dramatically reduced by revolutionising the way that the places we live in are designed and built.

That’s the view of experts investigating how the micro-organisms that cause disease behave in buildings and associated infrastructure.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), researchers at the new ‘Healthy Infrastructure Research Centre’ (HIRC), at University College London, are studying the behaviour of pathogens in places like hospitals and schools and drainage and sewage systems.

HIRC aims to:

– spot characteristics in building/infrastructure design that encourage diseases to spread

– pinpoint changes that can be made to infrastructure (in design, materials, maintenance etc) to restrict pathogens’ ability to survive and move around there.

“It’s well known that the infrastructure we rely on has an impact on our health, but understanding in this area is very limited,” says Dr Ka man Lai, who is leading the initiative. “HIRC will therefore explore the role played by air conditioning, ventilation systems, drains, pipes, and the size and layout of rooms, for example, in the transmission of airborne diseases and diseases spread via surface contact.

“My vision is that, within the next 10 years, we will completely transform infrastructure function, design and construction and so create a new disease-resistant environment fit for the 21st century. We hope that, within 3 years, HIRC will start generating insights and recommendations leading directly to healthier infrastructure.”

Every year, infectious diseases (such as seasonal flu, tuberculosis, hospital ‘superbugs’ and most recently swine flu) affect millions of people around the world. Their spread can be affected by many factors, including temperature, humidity, the presence of surfaces where pathogens can linger and the availability of ‘pathways’ enabling them to move around freely.

As well as investigating how new infrastructure can restrict disease transmission, HIRC will investigate ways of making old infrastructure healthier. It will also evaluate the precise impact that simple steps such as improving ventilation (e.g. by opening more windows) and understanding the influence hand-washing facilities could have in stopping the spread of pathogens.

Teaming up with academics and companies around the world, four core researchers will work at HIRC. They specialise in architecture and building engineering, environmental microbiology, technology and innovation, and people and behaviour.

The result of HIRC’s work could be a significant reduction in the number of people infected with debilitating and sometimes potentially dangerous diseases ? cutting the burden on healthcare resources and the number of working days lost to sickness.

HIRC has already started an initiative with the North East & North Central London Health Protection Unit to investigate the relationship between physical environment and tuberculosis transmission in an office. HIRC is also working with Great Ormond Street Hospital to improve some infection control practices.

Source: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, UK

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