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Computer model could help prevent flu pandemic

Close disease surveillance and targeted use of anti-viral drugs could be enough to keep a small outbreak of avian flu from becoming the first influenza pandemic in 36 years, according to a new computer model designed to prepare at-risk nations for a pandemic that could affect millions worldwide.

The best weapon is containment, said Neil Ferguson, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute international research scholar and professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London. Ferguson headed a study whose findings are being published online by the journal Nature on August 3, 2005.

The last influenza pandemic occurred in 1968, caused by a virus that first appeared in Hong Kong. By September of that year, the so-called Hong Kong flu had arrived in the United States, and by March 1969, an estimated 675,000 Americans had gotten sick and nearly 34,000 had died. Scientists say that an outbreak of avian or bird flu, the most likely candidate for an influenza pandemic, could be much worse now because humans have no immunity to it, and in today's world, infected persons can travel almost anywhere within 48 hours, potentially transmitting the virus to every individual they encounter along the way.

The first human cases of avian flu were reported in Hong Kong in 1997, where hundreds were infected and six people died. In that outbreak, humans contracted the virus from infected poultry. But viruses tend to mutate, and scientists fear the virus that causes avian flu--H5N1 influenza A virus--might alter its molecular structure and become transmissible from human to human. There is no vaccine for H5N1, and even if there were, it would be difficult to develop and distribute enough vaccine for all those at risk around the world.

In the scientists' computer model, a single resident of a rural village in Thailand was infected with a mutated H5N1 virus capable of human-to-human transmission. Scientists say that an avian flu pandemic would like
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Contact: Jennifer Donovan
donovanj@hhmi.org
301-215-8859
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
3-Aug-2005


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