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Frontiers of Science Lecture: Why Can’t We Eliminate the Flu?

Lecturer: Robin M. Bush, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology,
University of California, Irvine

Date: Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009

Time: 7:30 p.m.

Place: Aline Wilmot Skaggs Biology Building Auditorium, University of Utah


Influenza viruses that cause the common flu have plagued humans for centuries. Combined with subsequent pneumonia, flu is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. “Why, with all the wonders of modern medicine, do we still get the flu every year?” asks Robin M. Bush, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine.

Bush will deliver a free public lecture at the University of Utah on the origins of the flu, what is being done to combat the rapidly evolving viruses, and how current research may protect us.

Influenza presents a number of scientific puzzles. For example:

  • In nature, influenza viruses live in the guts of healthy birds. Some of these viruses present a great threat to humans. How do bird viruses transform into potentially deadly human pathogens, and why can’t we stop that from happening?
  • Once an influenza virus from birds becomes established in humans, continuing evolution allows it to infect us repeatedly during winter epidemics. An example is the Hong Kong flu, which caused a pandemic in 1968 that killed nearly 1 million people. Given that we now have 30 years of genome data from the Hong Kong flu, why do we still struggle to construct the yearly vaccine against it?

Bush also will describe efforts at the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to manage the ongoing H1N1 influenza (swine flu) outbreak. WHO officials formally declared swine flu a pandemic in June 2009, making it the first global flu epidemic in 41 years.

Rapidly evolving pathogens, such as influenza, as well as antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis and fast-mutating human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) greatly influence the practice of medicine in the United States and around the world. Bush will discuss some of the ways in which these public-health struggles illustrate basic principles of evolutionary biology.

Bush is one of eight principal investigators on the NIH Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study. She works on disease surveillance, prediction and vaccine development in collaboration with the Influenza Division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Frontiers of Science lecture series is sponsored by the College of Science and the College of Mines and Earth Sciences. Lectures are free and open to the public, but tickets are required to guarantee seating. Contact the College of Science at
801-581-6958 or visit to reserve tickets for the event.

Downloadable high-resolution photos of the H1N1 flu virus are available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at: