January 30, 2009

Bird Flu Vaccination Could Be On The Way

Thursday, researchers in Japan said they had developed a flu vaccine that works against multiple viruses and might prevent a deadly pandemic of bird flu mutations.

According to Tetsuya Uchida, a researcher at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, the research team has tested the vaccine on mice implanted with human genes, which confirms that it works even if flu viruses mutate.

Right now, flu vaccines use proteins that cover the surface of viruses, but the protein frequently mutates to make the vaccines ineffective.

Uchida told the AFP that the newly developed vaccine is based on common types of protein inside the bodies of flu viruses as they rarely change.  The viruses used are the Soviet-A and Hongkong-A, along with the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu.

"We expect this will also be effective on new variations" of the much-feared H5N1 strain in addition to conventional flu viruses, he said.

Millions of people might die worldwide if the avian influenza virus mutates into a form easily transmissible among humans, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

It would mostly likely take several years to put the vaccine into practical use, said Uchida.  The research team would need to confirm the vaccine's safety with further experiments on mice and possibly larger animals before tests on humans.

The study was done by researchers from the national institute, Hokkaido University, Saitama Medical University and NOF Corp., a chemicals company based in Tokyo.

According to experts, influenza that affects humans is caused mostly by the Soviet-A, Hongkong-A and type B viruses.

The experiment had been done with the type A viruses, but the method should also be effective on the type B, said Uchida.

Japan's health ministry warned that many people who are affected by the Soviet-A strain in Japan this winter were found to be resistant to widely used flu medicine Tamiflu.

Tamiflu is controversial because authorities said that children have jumped off bridges or ran into traffic after taking it.  However, authorities found no direct link between the drug and the abnormal behavior.

Uchida said that similar vaccination studies on attacking the inside of the virus body rather than its surface are also under way.

According to the WHO, about 250 people have died of avian flu since 2003.

In China, five deaths were reported this month, compared with just three in the whole of 2008, alarming health officials.

China is considered to be the most at risk nation for the bird flu epidemics, because it holds the world's biggest poultry population, and many chickens in the rural areas are kept close to humans.

The human victims of the bird flu are those that have been kept in close contact with sick birds.  There is not evidence yet that shows the deadly strain of bird flu has mutated into a form that could set off a pandemic.


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