As flu spreads across Arizona, some at ASU believe their tool can help fight the virus

The flu is now considered widespread across Arizona.

Earlier in the week, health officials say a baby too young to be immunized died from the flu, and so far in 2019, the state has seen more than 2,300 cases. compared to just 527 cases in 2018.

However, some people at Arizona State University are hoping their new system will help fight the flu in the future.

Researchers at ASU say they are the only one doing this kind of work to detect the flu. ASU Associate Professor Matthew Scotch is studying samples of water, but these water samples are from waste treatment plans.

"What we are able to do now is analyze these wastewater samples to look for viruses," said Scotch.

In June, ASU's Biodesign Institute received $1.5 million from the National Library of Medicine to develop an early warning system for virus outbreaks.

"This will be advantageous for us because not everyone goes to the doctor," said Scotch. "You may be stubborn or not feel sick. A lot of times, you have an infection but not feel sick, but everyone uses the bathroom."

The samples are collected and stored at the Biodesign unit. According to ASU, the freezers make up the largest collection of sewage repository in the nation.

The project has only been going since June, but Scotch and the team are already seeing some patterns.

"What we found is what Maricopa County is reporting by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this large spike in Influenza B viruses," said Scotch.

And that is the goal, because they want to use this kind of information to characterize viruses they find, identify new viruses, and provide this information to the communities affected. 

In turn, they hope this will provide crucial information to create better medicines to save lives.

"It is creating a knowledge base. An atlas, if you will. New things that we find that we didn't know existed before," said Scotch.

The team is using wastewater from Arizona, other parts of the United States, and even internationally. They say from this flu season, they will have their full results for what they are seeing by early 2020.