Friday, December 08, 2006

Bird flu and flu pandemic: What role will vaccines play?

As anyone who has ever rolled up their sleeve for a shot at the doctor knows, vaccines are just about the best way to stop the spread of infectious disease. Which is exactly why creating a vaccine that protects us from bird flu is of such high importance to researchers.

Right now, scientists are testing experimental vaccines against H5N1, the type of avian flu virus that is making birds and some people sick. Some early results have been promising, and researchers are hoping to come up with a vaccine that will work soon.

In the meantime, global health officials are crossing their fingers that the H5N1 virus doesn't mutate into a form that people can easily catch from one another. Because once that happens, a pandemic — which is basically a worldwide infectious disease outbreak — will likely occur.

So if there is a pandemic, all we need to do is start handing out that vaccine researchers have been working on, right? Not necessarily. Chances are, the experimental bird flu vaccines now in development will offer limited protection in the event of a pandemic. The change in the mutated virus' "ingredients" will be too great, and it won't look like the H5N1 currently being tested, so another vaccine would have to be developed.

Here is some more food for thought: Even if researchers do come up with the right type of vaccine, it will probably be in short supply, since it takes so long to produce it.

The bottom line is that in the first months of a pandemic, we are going to have to use other measures to lessen our risk of getting sick, including washing our hands often, covering our noses and mouths when we cough or sneeze, and avoiding close contact with people who are sick. In the end, the same things that keep us well every day may be the very things that keep us healthy during a flu pandemic.

No comments: