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Flu jab may help against H5N1

2nd January 2008

A regular annual flu vaccine may offer some protection against avian influenza, researchers say.

h5n1a

Scientists at the National Institute for Infectious Diseases Lazzaro Spallanzani in Rome found that the blood of volunteers who had received the seasonal flu shot had antibodies which may be of some use against H5N1.

Bird flu, which is so far only proven to have infected humans who came into contact with sick poultry, has infected 341 people in 13 countries, of whom 210 have died.

Health experts warn that the virus may be changing to become more easily transmissible between humans, and that this could spark a pandemic, with the potential to kill millions globally.

Researchers Cristiana Gioia, Maria Capobianchi and colleagues tested the blood of 42 volunteers, and added H5N1 virus to it in the laboratory.

They found that in some of the samples, antibodies were present that acted against the bird flu virus.

Their findings, published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, also showed a few immune cells called CD4 T-cells had recognised and acted against the H5N1 virus.

They said seasonal flu jabs boosted the frequency of such reactions.

Seasonal vaccination can raise neutralizing immunity against (H5N1 avian influenza) virus, they concluded.

They also suggested their findings could help explain why H5N1, which only rarely affects people, is even rarer among the elderly.

Older people, although not previously exposed to H5N1 subtype, may have gained protective immunity by previous infections sustained by circulating influenza virus strains, the study said.

Several types of influenza circulate globally among people at any given time and these strains constantly mutate. This means flu vaccines have to be reformulated every year to match the mutations.

Health experts around the world are trying to boost rates of annual flu vaccination both to cut the number of deaths caused by seasonal influenza, and to give additional protection in the event of a pandemic.

Mass seasonal vaccines will boost overall vaccine capacity, making it easier to start making enough vaccines when the next flu pandemic emerges.

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