Public Health Emergency - Leading a Nation Prepared
Author: By Richard J. Hatchett, M.D., Chief Medical Officer and Deputy Director for Strategic Sciences and Management for ASPR’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority Published Date: 11/25/2015 11:04:00 AM
Category: Response & Recovery; Public Health Preparedness;
More than seven million turkeys were culled during a bird flu outbreak this year, and you might be wondering about the one that’s going to serve as the centerpiece for your Thanksgiving dinner.
The good news is the bird you’re eating on Thanksgiving didn’t get the flu, but what about the people you’re gathering around the table with?
Influenza affects humans and many other animals. Birds, pigs, ferrets, horses and even ocean mammals can get the flu, but not all of these strains can be transmitted to humans.
To help make sure these strains don’t cross over to people, federal agencies are focused not only on preventing humans from getting flu, but also on controlling disease in animals when they are experiencing an outbreak of a strain that has the potential to make us ill.
After the highly pathogenic H5N2 avian influenza broke out earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture culled millions of infected and exposed birds, primarily chickens and turkeys, to help prevent the spread of the flu and prevent it from entering the food supply. Last summer ASPR’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began development of new H5 vaccines that may protect humans and birds.
According to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), more than 32 million egg-laying chickens – almost 10 percent of the total U.S. flock – were culled during the outbreak, which started in January 2015 and wasn’t brought under control until June. By September the average price of eggs nationally had climbed by more than 50 percent compared to the price a year before.
At present, most flu vaccines for humans use are grown in eggs, so you might think the egg shortage could lead to shortages and/or higher prices for flu vaccines. Fortunately, this is not the case. To prevent such outbreaks from threatening the vaccine supply, hens providing eggs for flu vaccines are kept separate from those producing eggs for food. The heightened sanitary and biosafety precautions used to protect these hens worked to keep our seasonal influenza vaccine supply secure.
It was with just such a scenario in mind that more than 10 years ago, HHS’ Office of Research and Development Coordination (the predecessor office to today’s BARDA) established a program to ensure a secure, year-round supply of embryonated eggs for manufacturing influenza vaccines. In subsequent years, ASPR/BARDA also supported the development of new egg-free influenza vaccines. Two of the egg-free vaccines that BARDA has supported, one grown in a cell culture system, the other produced using recombinant technology, have now been licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
To help further protect our nation against a potential pandemic flu outbreak, BARDA announced in September that it is supporting the development of the first monoclonal antibody treatment for flu. It is helpful to know the shape of influenza viruses to better understand how drugs target them.
Influenza viruses are roughly spherical and their outer coats are studded with proteins called the hemagglutinin (the H in a virus’s name) and neuraminidase (the N). Think of the hemagglutinin as one of the pieces of broccoli on your Thanksgiving table. Flu vaccines elicit an immune response that targets the flower heads at the tip of the broccoli and these frequently change, which is why public health officials have to try and predict which flu strains vaccines should target each year. The monoclonal antibody BARDA is supporting targets a conserved region on the stem of the broccoli, which changes much more slowly than the flower heads and could allow the drug to be effective against a broader range of flu viruses. If this drug’s efficacy is proven, it will give us another weapon against seasonal and pandemic flu. At the same time, BARDA is also seeking to develop improved influenza vaccines that more effectively target the conserved region of the hemagglutinin stem. The ultimate goal is to develop a vaccine that protects against all or nearly all subtypes of influenza A – a so-called “universal vaccine” that would protect against both seasonal and pandemic influenza.
Even though we aren’t facing a pandemic right now, seasonal flu can be a real threat to you and your family. If the flu strikes in your home this holiday season, it could ruin your family’s gathering or worse. The consequences of the flu can be very serious, even life-threatening, especially for children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. If you are getting together with anybody in one of those groups this holiday season, it is especially important to get your flu vaccine.
It takes about two weeks for a flu vaccine to take effect, so get your vaccine today. Not sure where to go? The Flu Vaccine Finder can help you find a pharmacy in your area where you can get the vaccine.
We hope that you have a safe, happy holiday season full of great memories. You can help make that happen by taking a few minutes to get your flu shot.
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