Q & A: Avian Flu

Tamiflu is approved to treat influenza A and influenza B type viruses. H5N1 is an A-type virus, so Tamiflu is an appropriate potential treatment per the FDA. However, Tamiflu was FDA approved based on its ability to treat other types of A viruses, not H5N1. Tamiflu's effectiveness in humans with H5N1 has never been tested.

Are there any other treatments effective against H5N1?

Animal and lab studies suggest that Relenza, which is in the same class of drugs as Tamiflu, may also be effective against H5N1. A third antiviral medication, RWJ-270201, has also been shown in lab studies to be effective against H5N1.

Why are governments stockpiling Tamiflu?

Despite the uncertainty, Tamiflu is the most effective treatment we have right now. It may also offer some protection against other potential pandemic flus. Currently, the Infectious Disease Society of America recommends that the U.S. stockpile enough antiviral treatment to treat at least 50 percent of the population. The World Health Organization believes a better number would be 80 percent.

What about creating a vaccine against avian flu?

Scientists are working on a vaccine, but creating an effective vaccine is difficult. To spread to a pandemic type of flu, the H5N1 virus that is infecting people now would have to mutate. Once it mutates, any vaccine created specifically for H5N1 may no longer be effective. So creating a vaccine based on the current H5N1 strain is of limited use.

Also, vaccines take several months to create. Once an outbreak occurs, a vaccine may not be created in time to be of use.

What other steps should governments be taking to prepare for a flu pandemic?

The major important thing is for governments to have a plan. Having a stockpile of antiviral medication is useless unless there is a way to distribute the drugs to people who need them. Surveillance is also highly critical; if we can catch a flu pandemic early, there is a better chance at stopping it or lessening its severity. Governments need to have an alert plan. They need a way to communicate quickly and effectively to hospitals, doctors and the general public what do to in the event of a dangerous flu outbreak.

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