U.S. OKs development of new bird flu vaccine

As avian influenza continues to spread across Europe and Africa, the federal Department of Health and Human Services has approved development of a new vaccine against the deadly disease.

While the United States has several million doses of the vaccine against the so-called “bird flu,” they are based on a virus from Vietnam in 2004. Health officials believe that the H5N1 virus, the virus that causes bird flu, has mutated since then, and will begin development of a vaccine based on current samples of the virus.

In an ominous development, three cats in Austria have tested positive for the H5N1 virus — some of the first documented cases of the virus infecting other animals besides birds. It is thought that the cats may have eaten infected birds.

Other cases where tigers in Asian zoos had contracted and died of the disease have been reported in 2003 and 2004, but were largely anecdotal.

According to a report in the March 7 issue of The Wall Street Journal, the government of Austria confirmed its first cases of avian influenza in wild bird populations last month. Some of those cases were in chickens taken to an abandoned animal shelter, which also cares for cats.

Austrian health officials said it was not immediately clear if the sick cats came from the shelter.

The World Health Organization has said that, to date, no disease has been passed from infected cats to humans.

Because of the cross-species jump of the disease, WHO researchers asked governments to step up their plans for preventing widespread disease.

“The outbreak in poultry is historically unprecedented,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, assistant director general for WHO’s communicable disease prevention efforts, at a March 6 conference in Geneva. “The cost to agriculture has exceeded $10 billion. The livelihood of around 300 million farmers has been affected. No one can say when this will end.”

Chan added that bird flu poses a greater challenge to the world than any previous emerging infectious disease because if it mutates to a form that can be easily transmitted from human to human, it would be a brand new virus to which people have no natural immunity and could cause a pandemic.

Since December 2003, when the virus was first detected, 174 humans have contracted the bird flu and 94 have died from the disease. All human cases are believed to have stemmed from poultry farmers or those with prolonged, close contact with infected bird populations.

For more information about avian influenza, visit WHO’s Web site at who.int or the state of New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, dhhs.nh.gov. — CINDY KIBBE

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