Avian Flu News
Egypt to spend US$450m on vaccination campaign

Egypt will embark on a new nationwide campaign to vaccinate live poultry against avian influenza, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said late February. According to IRIN News the plan comes after a second wave of the H5N1 influenza subtype in the country led to the deaths of seven people since October 2006.

The first wave began in February 2006, and while the disease appeared under control during the summer months, it resurfaced with the onset of winter. At the time of going to press, 22 human cases of infection with H5N1 have been reported in Egypt. Out of them, 13 people died. The latest was a 37-year-old woman from Fayyoum province who died on 16 February.

The new campaign, which the Egyptian Government estimates will cost US$450 million, involves the purchase of 100 million vaccine doses for birds. The resurgence of H5N1 among animals and humans – and reports of a drug-resistant mutation of the virus – has heightened fears that bid flu may develop into a disease that can be transmitted between humans. But officials also point to the ongoing threat to the food security of Egypt’s rural poor – for whom so-called ‘backyard birds’ are an integral part of daily diets and income.

According to officials on Egypt’s Supreme Committee for Avian Influenza, the factors that make poultry so important to Egypt’s rural poor – chickens and ducks are cheap and easy to rear at home – are the same factors that will make the vaccination programme an enormous task.

“It’s not like, for example, vaccinating against polio,” said Dr Abdel Nasser Ahmed, a disease surveillance official at the Ministry of Health. “If you go into a house, there are maybe one or two children. But there may be 10, 20 or even 30 birds in each,” he said.

Officials estimate that there are still around 135 million backyard birds in Egypt.

Compensation funds, according to officials, were widely abused by unscrupulous farmers during the first outbreak in 2006. Infected birds were reportedly sold for as much as LE1,000 (US$175) so that farmers could infect their own stock and claim compensation, instead of selling in a depressed market.

Officials are now considering a new scheme that will see culled infected birds replaced with vaccinated chicks and feedstock, instead of cash payments.

First human trial of DNA vaccine begins

The first human trial of a DNA vaccine designed to prevent H5N1 avian influenza infection began on December 21, 2006, when the vaccine was administered to the first volunteer at the United States-based National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center in Bethesda. Scientists from the Vaccine Research Center (VRC) at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), one of the NIH Institutes, designed the vaccine. The vaccine does not contain any infectious material from the influenza virus.

Unlike conventional flu vaccines, which are developed by growing the influenza virus in hens’ eggs and then administered as a weakened or killed form of the virus, DNA-based vaccines contain only portions of the influenza virus’ genetic material. Once inside the body, the DNA instructs human cells to make proteins that act as a vaccine against the virus.

VRC Director Gary Nabel, MD, PhD, together with a team of scientists from the VRC recognised the potential for employing new vaccine technology against influenza, a disease for which effective vaccines have long been made, but for which the reliability of supply and manufacturing capacity has been problematic.

Dr Nabel and his colleagues previously have shown the DNA vaccine approach to be effective against influenza viruses in animal models, including highly pathogenic viruses such as the H5N1 strain and the H1N1 virus that caused the deadly 1918 pandemic. The DNA vaccine used in this study is similar to other investigational vaccines evaluated by the VRC that hold promise for controlling other viruses, such as HIV, Ebola, SARS and West Nile. “An effective H5N1 influenza vaccine would provide a potentially life-saving advance against a global health threat,” notes NIAID director Anthony Fauci, MD. “More broadly, development of this DNA vaccine technology has the potential to improve our production capacity for vaccines to prevent seasonal influenza and other diseases.”

“This vaccine is aimed at newer strains of the H5N1 virus that currently pose a threat in Indonesia and represents an example of our ability to respond to shifting viruses with modern technology,” says Dr Nabel. The study will enroll 45 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 60. Fifteen will receive placebo injections and 30 will receive three injections of the investigational vaccine over 2 months and will be followed for 1 year. Volunteers will not be exposed to influenza virus.

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