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Stockpile bird flu vaccine now

GOVERNMENTS should consider stockpiling vaccine against H5N1 bird flu now, before a pandemic starts, a World Health Organization report out next month will advise. The change in policy reflects growing fears that an H5 pandemic is likely, and that there will not be time to produce much vaccine once it starts. "When we realised H5N1 is not going to be eradicated in poultry in Asia for at least another couple of years, that made the risk of H5 much higher," Klaus Sthr, head of the WHO's influenza team, told New Scientist.

The US has already contracted manufacturers to make 4 million doses, while at a meeting at WHO headquarters in Geneva last week Italy and France said they plan to stockpile 2 million doses each. But in a world of over 6 billion people that is nowhere near enough to make a significant difference, as Sthr points out. "This is an option only for affluent countries, and then for a fraction of their population," he says. "It won't change a lot at the global level."

Until now the WHO has said that a vaccine cannot be made until a pandemic starts, as only then can it be based on the exact strain of the virus responsible. "Normally there is no point stockpiling vaccine, because you don't know which flu will cause the next pandemic," Sthr says. "It could be H7 or H9." But the failure to halt the H5N1 bird flu outbreaks in Asia, and the growing number of human cases (see Table), is changing minds. Recent findings also suggest that a stockpiled vaccine could provide some protection even if it does not exactly match the pandemic virus.

Experiments on animals at St Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, show that while previous exposure to similar strains may not stop them falling ill when infected with H5N1 flu, it can prevent them dying. What's more, people normally require two shots of a vaccine to make them immune to a strain of flu they have not encountered before. An H5 vaccine would prime people's immune systems, so they would need onl
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16-Feb-2005


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