Finally?before the dreaded pandamic?an avian (bird flu) vaccine has been created. Unless we’re doctors or public health workers, this doesn’t mean much to us here in the US, but scientists have been worried that this disease, which originally spread to humans from birds (especially poultry) in Asian countries, would eventually lead to an epidemic as devastating as the 1918 flu which killed millions of people worldwide.

However, health officials caution that the existence of the vaccine isn’t enough to stop an upcoming pandemic. Countries, especially in Asia, need to quickly organize to give the shots to vulnerable people as soon as the vaccine becomes widely available. One thing that slows down the manufacture of flu vaccine is a shortage of ordinary chicken eggs. While there never seems to be a shortage of these in our grocery stores, this isn’t true everywhere in the world.

The UK plans to stockpile two million doses of the new bird flu vaccine, and one expert there says that despite the July 7th terrorist bombings, he still feels that avian flu is an even bigger threat than terrorism. Doctors in Scotland warn that a pandemic of bird flu is inevitable and could kill up to 50,000 people.

Peter Openshaw, an expert in respiratory diseases, says, “It’s difficult to know if a major outbreak is about to happen, but?[a] bird flu that spreads between people would be much harder to control than SARS or smallpox. The human mortality with…bird flu could be 30% and an epidemic could infect 50% of the world’s population. I am much more concerned about this than terrorist threats.”

The vaccine will first be given to doctors and health workers. After that, the most vulnerable people in the population will be identified and targeted, such as children, the elderly and patients with compromised immune systems. HIV and AIDS weaken the immune system, but so does chemotherapy treatments for cancer. Careful record-keeping is important, because if the flu virus appears to be spreading in one part of the country, everyone there could be immunized. However, as we saw with the SARS virus, it is hard to contain an epidemic in the modern era of widespread overseas travel.

It’s important to know that all flu vaccines are made from a dead version of the virus, grown in eggs, so you CANNOT get the flu from the shot. When this seems to happen, it’s because you were exposed to the virus shortly before getting the vaccination.

Avian flu originated in Asia, where there are huge bird markets and families often keep chickens in places where children interact with them, but like SARS, it will be spread by people. Most of the flu that arrives here in the US is “swine flu,” which originates in pigs. Flu viruses mutate, which is why you have to take a new flu shot every year. The new avian flu vaccine protects against the bird flu virus that is spreading from person to person in Asia and Russia right now. Since it hasn’t yet arrived on our shores, we won’t have to take it here?yet. However, like the spread of SARS to Toronto, that day is inevitably coming. Avian flu vaccines are in our future.

One of the best defenses against all types of flu is to wash your hands often, especially when coming inside from shopping trips, since viruses can live many days on surfaces and are spread by touch.

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