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Flu Shots and the Bird Flu

Expert Q&A

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Updated April 14, 2013

Updated April 14, 2013
Q. Will my baby's flu shot protect him against the bird flu? Joy, Omaha, Nebraska

A. Unfortunately, our current 'flu shot' will not protect you against the bird flu. Although they are both caused by an influenza virus, they are very different flu strains, which makes a much bigger difference than you would think. The latest bird flu virus strain, or avian influenza, is an H7N9 virus, while the human flu viruses that are in the flu shot this year include the H1N1, H3N2, and B flu virus strains.

Couldn't they just put the H7N9 bird flu strain into the flu shot? It is not quite that simple a thing to do. A lot of testing has to go into vaccine development, although a bird flu vaccine is currently being tested.

But don't blame your pediatrician for ordering the 'wrong' flu shot. A bird flu vaccine is not commercially available, meaning that you just can't go out and buy it.

Some parents are concerned about the bird flu because of recent reports in the news of human infections in China. While it is important to stay informed about this important health threat, especially so that we make sure that government health officials are doing everything to protect us, I don't think you need to stay up at night worrying about whether or not your kids are going to get the bird flu right now.

Avian Influenza

Although the bird flu occurs naturally in wild birds, it can make domesticated birds, such as chickens, ducks, and turkeys, very sick. People can then get sick from handling or eating these sick birds, a common practice in many parts of the world, including Asia, where most outbreaks of bird flu have occurred.

What makes the bird flu virus such a concern for the world's health is that most of us have no natural immunity against it. For example, if I had the flu last year, or even a few years ago, and it was caused by the plain old H1N1 flu strain, and I then got it again this year, I would have some leftover immunity or protection and would probably not get a very bad case of the flu. But since most people have never ever had a case of flu caused by the H7N9 flu strain, they would likely get typical flu symptoms, such as high fever, cough, sore throat and muscle aches, but could also have more severe symptoms, including acute respiratory distress, and other severe and life-threatening complications. In fact, the death rate of people infected by the H7N9 strain of the bird flu virus is about 40 percent.

Don't Worry Yet

Even with all of the doom and gloom reports on the news about bird flu, there are some good reasons why you may not need to worry yet, including that:
  • so far, the H7N9 strain of the bird flu is not known to have spread from one person to another, although some of the infected people are not known to have contact with infected birds. For a flu pandemic to occur, the bird flu virus is going to have to mutate and 'learn' how to spread in humans. Viruses do mutate, so it can happen, but it hasn't yet, and it may never happen.

  • antiviral drugs are available to treat the bird flu, including Tamiflu and Relenza.

  • a bird flu vaccine is available, but it is for the H5N1 strain of bird flu, which has caused 620 cases and 367 deaths since 2003, and not for the newer H7N9 strain.

  • so far, world health authorities in Asia have been doing a very good job of curbing outbreaks by killing hundreds of millions of infected birds.

  • medicine is much more sophisticated than it was during the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic, in which 50 million people died. In addition to vaccines and antiviral medicines like Tamiflu, we can do flu testing to quickly test and quarantine infected persons.

Most importantly, everyone seems to be talking about and be concerned about the bird flu before it has become a worldwide problem, so maybe that means we will be able to do something about it and prevent a flu pandemic.

And remember, unless you were in Asia and had contact with a sick bird, if your child has flu symptoms, then he probably just has the regular seasonal flu and is not coming down with the bird flu...



Sources:

CDC. Avian Influenza Current Situation. Accessed April 2013.

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