1918 epidemic key to bird flu28th September 2006
Research published in the journal Nature suggests that the 'Spanish' flu outbreak, which killed up to 50 million people in 1918-19, was caused by an overreaction in the immune system.
The research, by a team at the University of Washington in Seattle, has implications for the understanding and treatment of the H5N1 avian flu and other strains with the potential to cause a pandemic.
The team used a reconstructed virus to infect mice, and also infected a control group of mice with a less virulent human strain of flu. Analysis has already shown that the 1918 virus has similarities to H5N1, although belonging to a different strain, H1N1.
The Spanish flu virus produced a much more extreme immune reaction in the lungs of the mice, activating genes that kill off infected cells. Although this is designed to protect the body, if the reaction is too strong it can cause as much damage as the disease itself.
The researchers hope that they may be able to develop a method of reducing this reaction, so that the patient is not harmed by infections with virulent forms of flu. A dual treatment could then be used: with an antiviral drug to kill the virus, and an anti-inflammatory moderating the activity of the immune system.
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