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Protecting against bird flu

Peter D. Zimmerman, professor of science and security at King's College London, provides a valuable insight to the threat of the "deadly" H5N1 avian flu which is back in the news after an outbreak in Britain. His ideas, available in the Wall Street Journal's print edition, include some good news and some advice.

Although the H5N1 virus has not made the critical interspecies leap, Zimmerman reminds us that its kill rate is a staggering 61% of those infected. (The victims had all worked closely with infected birds.) He explains,

Influenza viruses have eight genes and these mutate rapidly. Two sites on the viral genome, called H and N, are well catalogued, and each of those genes can come in many forms. Those are the markers that trigger the human immune system. If your body has seen a whiff of a particular virus, it will produce large numbers of antibodies if you later become infected with a strain having the same markers. If you have never been exposed to a particular strain, there are no antibodies in your bloodstream, and your body will fight an uphill battle for survival. The more virulent the virus, the less chance you have.

Advances in DNA science – described in the 20th and 21st century Ingenious Timelines – have contributed to stopping influenza as "each year a panel of experts tries to guess which strains of flu will pose the highest risk in the coming influenza season, and orders up vaccines" for the vulnerable.

Now, says Zimmerman, "The pharmaceutical industry has learned the difficult trick of making and producing a vaccine against a hitherto unknown disease." GlaxoSmithKline, a British based pharmaceutical, biologicals, and healthcare company, "recently claimed that it had succeeded in developing a 'second generation' bird flu vaccine that could be given in advance, even before knowing the detailed gene structure". The vaccine produces broad-spectrum antibodies against many strains of the virus. Other companies have achieved similar results.

Zimmerman concludes that an essential part of this effort to protect the world's people from a devastating flu influenza is giving health agencies in China and Vietnam support so they report new flu outbreaks immediately.

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