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US farms hit by bird flu – but a vaccine might make things worse

By Karen Graham     Apr 27, 2015 in Business
Eight million chickens and turkeys have been destroyed at 70 farms in 13 states due to the spreading H5N2 bird flu virus. Health officials are cautiously optimistic the virus will not affect humans, but are offering antiviral drugs to farm workers.
Federal health officials have offered the antiviral medication, Tamiflu to hundreds of poultry farm workers who have been exposed to the highly contagious H5N2 bird flu virus. But less than half the workers have agreed to take the medication.
To date, the virus has infected turkeys and chickens on Midwestern poultry farms but has not crossed over to humans. But because so many of these viruses are able to mutate, there is a considerable concern for those in direct contact with the sick birds, raising fears of illness.
Federal health care workers just don't know the consequences to a human becoming ill with the H5N2 virus, or even how severe the illness would be. But they say it is highly unlikely the virus could be passed among humans, due to the genetic makeup of this strain of the virus.
Dr. Alicia Fry, a medical officer in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) influenza division, says her agency has isolated a pure strain of the H5N2 virus for potential use as a vaccine if one is needed. The CDC is also working with federal regulators to get the release of a stockpile of Roche's antiviral, Tamiflu.
Bird flu problems may only be beginning
Federal agriculture officials are hopeful the outbreak will diminish as warmer weather and sunshine destroys the flu virus. But they also say this may only be the beginning. They fear that wild ducks could infect the rest of the continent this autumn.
The story behind the H5N2 virus is interesting, though deadly. It started last summer when the H5N1 virus mutated with other viruses in wildfowl in Siberia, creating a new strain, the H5N8 virus. The H5N8 virus reached the United States where it mutated further, creating the H5N2 virus, which has spread across the midwest and into Ontario, Canada.
The $45 billion U.S. poultry industry is already suffering. Our poultry is already banned in China, South Korea and Mexico, and the poultry industry is calling for a vaccine. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture is already working on developing a vaccine, it could also make the bird flu problem worse.
The silent infection trap
There is a chance that vaccinating poultry for the virus would lead to pockets of "silent infections" that would spread unnoticed, making things worse. Henry Wan of Mississippi State University, who discovered H5N1 in 1996, says, "vaccination will always be the last option for avian influenza." He cites widespread poultry vaccination programs in China, Indonesia and Egypt that have not done anything to halt or get rid of the strain.
Vaccinated poultry can spread the virus without getting sick, making the virus silent or invisible to detect. Researchers say the mutation of the virus has been driven by the use of vaccinations of poultry. China, for example, is trapped in this vaccination problem.
If China stops the expensive vaccination of all their poultry, silent infections with H5N1 would decimate all the unvaccinated birds. Not only that, but the export of meat and eggs is banned in countries that vaccinate their poultry.
We will have to ride this virus out, hoping the warmer weather of summer kills off any remaining viruses and stiffer sanitation measures kick in to stop the spread. Then we can wait until fall, and see what happens when the wild ducks fly south.
More about Bird flu, h5n2, antiviral mediacation, Vaccine, 13 states
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