Scientists theorize each year which flu strain will affect Americans. The government estimates there are 98 million people at high risk of flu complications.

Edmondites should not be alarmed that Avian flu will become a pandemic this year, said Gillian Air, Ph.D. and a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the OU College of Medicine.

A more immediate concern should be for the general population to receive the flu vaccine that protects against a typical Hong Kong flu, she added.

The Edmond resident’s research primarily focuses on human influenza viruses.

“I think they’re more of a threat at this moment,” she said. “They don’t kill people at the same rate, for sure. But they are with us and the Avian one is still in the future.”

Her lab collaborates with flu vaccine trials to further understand how people make antibodies that respond to the vaccine.

Five to 20 percent of people in the United States contract the flu each year, according to the Centers of Disease Control. Of these, more than 200,000 are hospitalized due to flu complications.

“We’re interested in how to improve the vaccine, how to maybe predict better which strain will come through next year,” Air explained. “And get the vaccine made in time instead of a year too late.”

Experiments several years ago determined how sugars binded in Hong Kong flu and bird flu.

Flu viruses connect to sialic acid, a body sugar. Recently, Air and an investigative colleague Upma Gulati, Ph.D., determined a simple sialic acid scientists knew was responsible for making the virus accessible to the body is not a receptor for the recent influenza viruses.

The discovery will help researchers to identify exactly how the flu virus is transmitted. Air is striving to discover if another sugar makes infection possible.

Air wants to help put to rest the misconception that getting a flu shot causes the flu. The vaccine is made of parts of dead virus. Three strains of dead virus go into the flu vaccine this year. The research that goes into a vaccine is several months old before it’s available. The vaccine manufacturers have to know by the previous February what to put in the vaccine.

“That doesn’t even give us time to see what’s going on in the southern hemisphere,” she said. “They have winter when we have summer. And we do get an idea of what might come here but it’s too late for the vaccine manufacturers.”

The CDC recommends helping to prevent the flu by frequent cleaning of hands, especially after coughing or sneezing, avoiding close contact with someone who is sick, staying at home when sick, covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Thirty-six thousand people die from the flu each year in the United States, according to the CDC.

The 1918 Spanish flu killed more than 50 million people worldwide in a two-year period. It was not only a new virus, but one that was particularly virulent. And the last influenza pandemic occurred in 1968-69, but was not as virulent as the one in 1918.

Efforts are being made to develop a bird flu vaccine in the United States and England. Theoretically, the bird flu could spread into the United States.

Pandemics occur when the flu virus mutates completely from a previous year. People’s previous immunity to similar strains of influenza is irrelevant during a pandemic because nobody has developed antibodies against it.

“Whereas the regular flu strains that come through each year, even though they change and they’re antigenically a bit different every year, they’re not totally different, so you do get some protection from vaccine,” Air said.

Flu is commonly transmitted through aerosols. For the bird flu to cause a pandemic, it will need have to be virulent enough to place enough virus in a respiratory sneeze or aerosol to infect people, said Dr. Joseph Waner, vice president for research at OU Health Sciences Center in a 2004 Edmond Sun story.

“It is spreading apparently,” Air said. “It’s not absolutely clear if they’re just monitoring it better and finding it in places they didn’t see if before because they weren’t looking there before.”

Since 1997, an Asian influenza strain that circulates in birds has mutated enough to successfully transfer from bird to human. There have been no outbreaks of the bird flu in the United States. However, the first case of bird flu transferring between humans was documented last year in Thailand.

Air said there have been about 100 documented cases of people infected with the virus in Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia.

“It’s almost bird to human,” she said. “There are a couple of cases where it’s possibly human to human.”

Avian flu will not cause a pandemic all at once. If the bird flu learns to transmit easily between people, it will likely develop in an isolated southeast Asia community, Air said.

“The concern is these days people travel a lot,” Air continued. “It could spread just like SARS did. But I think just like SARS, it would be a restricted amount of people and would probably be contained by quarantine.”

(Features Editor James Coburn may be reached via e-mail at jcoburn@edmond sun.com.)

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