Focus on Infectious Disease: Reducing the Threat of ‘Flu-Imposter’ Adenovirus

It may feel like the flu — and be just as grave of a health threat — but it’s not the flu. It’s adenovirus, an infectious disease that often goes undetected because it presents itself almost identically to influenza. Symptoms for both diseases include fever, headache and body aches. Both are highly contagious and spread through coughing or sneezing. In fact, they’re so similar that only diagnostic testing can confirm which virus is causing an infection.

Historically, adenovirus is associated with outbreaks of acute respiratory illness that spread in the close quarters of U.S. military recruit training facilities in the 1950s. The first vaccine was developed in 1956, and several other vaccines emerged in the decades that followed. However, the vaccine is still limited to military personnel. The seemingly low number of non-military cases hasn’t justified the cost of surveillance or wider vaccination efforts.

Now, however, scientists from Lovelace have conducted research that shows it may be time for the U.S. to consider changing its practice.

In a study that received national attention earlier this year, Lovelace virologist Adriana Kajon, Ph.D., analyzed the genetic sequences of 36 adenovirus samples collected from otherwise healthy teenagers, college students, elderly patients in long-term care facilities, and one cancer patient, during an outbreak that lasted from 2011 to 2015.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published the findings in its journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Lovelace found that during the outbreak, physicians followed treatment guidelines by testing for adenovirus after patients didn’t respond to flu treatment. However, this was too late for many individuals hit with the virus. Four patients died from complications of adenovirus infection. In addition, a 26-year old man experienced respiratory distress and spent five days in intensive care, and a 43-year-old woman experienced brain swelling and bleeding, requiring a month-long hospital stay.

“These reports are probably the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Kajon said in a nationally broadcast interview on NBC News. “We need more surveillance.”

Dr. Kajon also was recently featured on Santa Fe Public Radio. (Listen here: Another Flu-like Virus Has Surfaced After The Worst Flu Season In Years)

Samples from this outbreak were first isolated by the CDC and tested for human adenovirus type 4 (HAdV-4). Dr. Kajon and her team then extracted the viral DNA of these HAdV-4 positive samples and sequenced the genomes of 12 representative isolates. Following next-generation sequencing reactions at Wadsworth Center’s Applied Genomic Technology Core, Lovelace completed the mapping, assembly and accuracy confirmation at its Biological Safety Level (BSL) 2 facility.

Lovelace scientists found adenovirus variants 4a1 and 4a2 in these majority of these patients. These are the same variants commonly detected in military recruits before vaccination reduces infection levels. The findings suggest a public health benefit to wider surveillance of adenovirus, and encourages consideration of making the vaccine available to susceptible populations living in closed communities, such as college dorms, summer camps and long-term care facilities.

“Adenovirus is a vaccine-preventable disease,” Dr. Kajon said. “A life is a life. Losing a loved one to viral pneumonia when you know it could have been prevented is something that should never happen when we have the right tools to treat it.”

Lovelace Biomedical works closely with pharmaceutical and biotech companies to advance to methods that can prevent and treat infectious diseases such as adenovirus or flu. In addition to Lovelace Biomedical’s BSL2 facility, our Albuquerque campus includes an Animal Biosafety Level (ABSL) 3 facility that’s equipped for thorough evaluation of highly pathogenic and low-pathogenic infectious diseases.