The level of immunity to the recently circulating H7N9 influenza virus in an urban and rural population in Vietnam is very low, according to the first population level study to examine human immunity to the virus, which was previously only found in birds. The findings have implications for planning the public health response to this pandemic threat.
The study used a new, high throughput method that allows blood samples to be analysed for antibodies to multiple human and animal influenza viruses at the same time and is easier to standardise than previous techniques. However, the assay is yet to be validated clinically for the H7N9 virus, and the researchers caution that the results must be interpreted with care.
Since the first case of H7N9 infection in humans was reported in February 2013, there have been 131 confirmed cases and 36 deaths, all in China apart from one case in Taiwan. All of the infections seem to have come from infected poultry and there is no evidence of sustained transmission between people. One of the first key pieces of information that officials need when considering how best to respond to the threat of a pandemic is how much, if any, immunity the human population has to this virus. This helps to predict where the virus is likely to affect first and how likely it is that the virus will spread further. Having this knowledge also helps to understand the risks of severe infection, as well as helping to target protective measures such as where to direct antiviral medication.
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