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A Visit with Dr. Ritchie
by Valerie Wixen, former AHN Advisory Board Member, September 2002

On August 16th, 2002, Avian Health Network's past Vice-President and her husband traveled to the University of Georgia to confer with Dr. Ritchie about AHN's StopPDD 2003 Research fundraising campaign.

Branson Ritchie, DVM, MS, ABVP, ECAMS, PhD, is the Associate Professor of Small Animal Medicine and Medical Microbiology. He is also a member of the Emerging Diseases Research Group (EDRG) of College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia. World-Renowned in the field of Avian Research, Dr. Ritchie leads a multi-disciplinary team whose current research includes characterization of the suspect PDD virus.

The University of Georgia has provided EDRG with large modern lab facilities on campus to conduct his research. Although he is employed by the State of Georgia, his research in the area of PDD is funded completely by donations from individuals and organizations.

"Finding a cure for any disease is something like building a house," Dr. Ritchie explained. "If you start out with all of the materials - blocks, mortar, boards, nails, wire, pipes, and shingles - it doesn't take long to finish building your house. But if you go out and buy a board and a few nails one day, and the following week you do the same, you can see where it would take a very long time to finish the same house."

Dr. Ritchie is not one to waste resources. He proudly showed his "acquisitions", including a large commercial refrigerator that he picked up for pennies on the dollar because "it didn't work". A relatively inexpensive thermostatic switch was replaced, and the refrigerator now occupies a prominent position in the lab. Another of his frugal acquisitions was a high-speed centrifuge used to spin and separate blood samples into basic components of plasma, white blood cells and red blood cells.

Dr. Ritchie stated on many occasions that it was the "team" that has made so many achievements possible. Veterinarians and technicians on the EDRG research team have included Drs. Phil Lukert, Chris Gregory, Ken Latimer, Paula Ciembor, Buddy Steffens, Kelly Phillips, Lynn Seibert, Heather Wilson, Vanessa Lester, Steve and Sonia Hernandez-Divers, Richard Davis, Cheryl Greenacre, Frank Niagro, Denise Pesti, Mary Ard, Patricia Schroder, Vicki Burnley, Kate Pennick, Ray Campagnoli and Nancy Pritchard.

"If anyone is going to find the cause and cure for PDD, it will be this man", said Dr. Ritchie, proudly patting Chris Gregory on the shoulder.

According to Dr. Ritchie, PDD is now occurring in a wider variety of birds, and more often in Canadian Geese. He believes there are multiple causes of disease transmission. Dr. Ritchie noted that birds in open, well-ventilated areas are less likely to develop PDD than birds that live inside and are subjected to airborne particulates.

The unstable nature of the PDD virus transmission process can be observed in the case of one male cockatiel with PDD that did not infect his mate or chicks of multiple clutches. Can we assume that male cockatiels do not pass on the virus? Questions like this continue to remain unanswered.

When asked how close EDRG might be to the goals of creating a successful assay and vaccine, Dr. Ritchie replied "Science just doesn't work that way. The moment of significant discovery could happen as we sit and talk, it could happen tomorrow and we have no way to predict or control when that moment will be."

He clearly feels that the work he and his team are engaged in will ultimately contribute to finding the links necessary to resolving the problem, yet added that he is not in a race to some imaginary finish line. "If someone else can find what's necessary to make it possible for me to never have to see another PDD bird, I will willingly move on to other studies and be glad for the research done. This is not about who can do the work-it's about having this frightening disease controlled."

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