A state lab that has an impact on virtually every Iowan is turning 100 years old. The University of Iowa Hygienic Lab was designated the state’s official health lab back in 1904 by the state legislature. Director Mary Gilchrist says 100 years ago the state lab was part of a movement to fight infectious diseases.She says it was time when we had diphtheria, tuberculosis, cholera and typhoid fever and there was a lot of public health work to clean up the water, so cholera and typhoid became a lot less prevalent. Fifty years later vaccines and antibiotics dealt a blow to those diseases, but doctor Gilchrist says things seem to have gone in a circle. She says we’re seeing infectious diseases coming back, what are called “emerging infectious diseases” with SARS and West Nile Virus. Gilchrist says the lab today does a lot of reactive testing to find the cause of water contamination, and disease outbreaks. She says there’s also proactive work in tracking diseases in ticks — and for the last 30 years testing each newborn child for diseases. And in the last three years, the number of tests of those suspicious white powders has increased. She says they’re testing a lot of things that don’t turn out to be bioterrorism or chemical terrorism. She says the families of those who are worried about it can go home and sleep at night. Gilchrist says providing peace of mind is the motivation for the work they do at the lab. Gilchrist says one of the biggest changes in the 100 years is the technology that’s sped up their work.She says the detection of infectious diseases has gone from a day or two, to a few hours, and they’re working on speeding it up even more. Gilchrist says one of her goals is to continue improving the communication between the lab and the public.
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