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Flu Shots, Vaccines, Bird Flu and Swine Flu

Bird flu suspected at Alabama poultry farms

The farms are across the state line from a Tennessee farm where the virus was detected

State agriculture officials and executives at a major poultry operation have announced thousands of chickens at three farms have been euthanized over the suspected presence of bird flu.

The company, Aviagen, said it found the presence of virus antibodies in a flock, even though none of the chickens displayed symptoms of the disease. Officials were on high alert because the operation in Northern Alabama is just across the state line from a Tennessee farm where bird flu was detected last month.

According to Reuters, the company euthanized the flock and destroyed the eggs that had been collected from the chickens. Reuters quotes Alabama State Veterinarian Tony Frazier as saying about 15,000 chickens, out of a flock of around 153,000, were killed.

Alabama.com, a local news website, reports Frazier has issued a "stop movement" order for some poultry in the affected area. Officials so far believe the suspected outbreak is confined to a limited area.

Preliminary test results

Preliminary test results have confirmed bird flu at three sites, but further testing by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will determine the strain of flu and its severity.

Last week the USDA completed testing on bird flu samples from Lincoln County, Tenn., confirming the strain as H7N9 HPAI. All eight gene segments of the virus show that the virus originated among North American wild birds.

USDA took pains to point out the strain is different from the severe H7N9 virus that impacted poultry and caused illness among humans in Asia.

"USDA continues to work with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture on the joint incident response," the agency said in a release. "Birds on the affected premises have been depopulated, and burial is in progress. An epidemiological investigation is underway to determine the source of the infection.

Bird flu spreads quickly among animals but so far can only be transmitted to humans who come in contact with an infected bird. There have been no confirmed cases of human to human transmission of the virus.

State agriculture officials and executives at a major poultry operation have announced thousands of chickens at three farms have been euthanized over the suspected presence of bird flu.

The company, Aviagen, said it found the presence of virus antibodies in a flock, even though none of the chickens displayed symptoms of the disease. Officials were on high alert because the operation in Northern Alabama is just across the state line from a Tennessee farm where bird flu wa...

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    Why not getting your flu shot could cost you

    Consumers spent roughly $9 billion last year in medical costs from not being vaccinated

    No one likes getting sick, but it seems that many Americans are loathe to go out and get a vaccination when flu season comes around. Unfortunately, it might not just be hurting their health, though.

    A new collaborative report shows that U.S. consumers spent $5.8 billion on medical costs related to the influenza virus. But monetary problems don’t stop there. In all, Americans spent roughly $9 billion in 2015 on treating diseases that can be avoided by vaccination.

    All of this begs the question, what do consumers have against vaccines?

    Economic repercussions

    The debate over vaccinations became very polarizing and high-profile in recent years after a scientific study stated that they may be linked to autism. The study was later debunked and the findings were retracted, but the notion has stuck with consumers ever since.

    While the debate over whether or not a parent should vaccinate their child continues to rage, many adults have stopped getting vaccinations as well. Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the majority of U.S. adults avoided getting their flu shot last year, and the study’s authors believe that this hesitance could have major economic repercussions.

    “Vaccines save thousands of lives in the United States every year, but many adults remain unvaccinated. Low rates of vaccine uptake lead to costs to individuals and society in terms of death and disabilities, which are avoidable, and they create economic losses from doctor visits, hospitalizations, and lost income,” they said.

    Addressing the issue

    The researchers admit that increasing the rate of vaccination won’t entirely erase the amount of money lost by consumers. In fact, they even go far as to say that vaccines are not always a 100% guarantee of good health. However, they say that opening the public’s eyes to this growing problem should encourage consumers and lawmakers to look at the problem critically so that it can be addressed.

    “By highlighting the tremendous financial burden that unvaccinated individuals place on the economy and the health system, we hope that our estimate will spur creative policy solutions,” they said.

    The full study has been published in Health Affairs.

    No one likes getting sick, but it seems that many Americans are loathe to go out and get a vaccination when flu sea...
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    What's the best way to avoid the flu?

    Consumers not convinced a flu shot is all that helpful

    Health officials spend the better part of the fall months urging consumers to roll up their sleeves and get a flu shot. They say it's the best way to avoid getting sick.

    But it's not clear if consumers are buying that message. The Harris Poll asked more than 2,000 adults what they think is the best way to avoid getting the flu and fewer than half – just 43% – said getting a flu shot.

    In fact, 42% said they think "people take the flu season too seriously."

    Fewer than half require flu shots

    Maybe consumers would take flu shots more seriously if healthcare workers did. University of Michigan medical researchers looked into U.S. hospital policies that require doctors, nurses, and other health care providers to get vaccinated against the flu.

    Surprisingly, the researchers report that fewer than half the hospitals they surveyed have such a policy, despite the fact these healthcare providers come in contact with the people most vulnerable to the flu every day.

    In all, only 42.7% of those who responded from 386 hospitals said their hospital required flu vaccination of all healthcare providers. About 10% more said their hospital would require it for the following flu season.

    “Vaccination of healthcare workers has been shown to significantly reduce patients’ risk of influenza and its complications, including pneumonia and death, compared with vaccination of patients alone,” said Dr. Sanjay Saint, senior author of the new study. “To put it bluntly, American hospitals have a lot of work to do.”

    Avoiding the flu

    How do consumers plan to avoid getting the flu? The most common answer, given by 69% of respondents, was frequent hand washing. Nearly as many thought being well rested and maintaining a healthy diet would protect them.

    Getting a flu shot ranked only a little higher than taking vitamins and using hand sanitizers.

    To be clear, health officials say everyone – especially people who work in a healthcare setting – should get a flu shot.

    And despite what 42% of consumers think, getting the flu can be a pretty big deal. In addition to productivity lost in the workplace from sick days, people can and do die from the flu – mainly the very old and very young.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says its most recent data indicates that flu season is just getting started in the United States. Activity is still low across most of the country. Increases in activity are expected in the coming weeks.

    Health officials spend the better part of the fall months urging consumers to roll up their sleeves and get a flu shot. They say it's the best way to avoid...
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    Researchers develop a better flu vaccine

    Creating stronger and weaker versions will allow them to more safely treat infants and the elderly

    With fall and winter just around the corner, the annual flu season will soon be upon us as well. Up to 20 percent of U.S. residents get the flu every year, so it is very important to take proper steps in order to avoid it. Unfortunately, yearly flu vaccinations are not always effective for everyone. Studies show that current flu vaccines are less effective, or even counter-productive, for babies under the age of two and adults over the age of 49; as a result, the flu vaccine has not been approved for either of these two groups of people. Luckily, a new nasal spray flu vaccine method may be able to correct this shortcoming.

    Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health created the new method after studying and creating varying versions of the flu virus. By controlling how strong each virus is, the researchers concluded that they can weaken or strengthen it depending on the needs of those who take it.

    “We think we can use our molecular, rational design approaches to make a better flu vaccine for people who really need it,” said Andrew Pekosz, an associate professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and leader of the study.

    One of the advantages that the study has is that the viruses can be controlled according to the specifications of the researchers. “We can do it in a sophisticated and accurate way, not in a blind manner, which is how these vaccines are usually developed,” said Pekosz.

    Treating infants and the elderly

    This new method may be particularly helpful to people over the age of 60 and children under the age of two. Older people, in particular, are more likely to get the flu and can often suffer medical complications because of it. Since they have been exposed to so many different flu viruses over the course of their lives, they often need a more potent vaccine in order to provoke an immune response.

    On the other hand, children under the age of two have not been exposed to the flu very much, and need a weaker version of the vaccine. Although they can take an injectable version, the nasal spray is preferred by doctors who state that it is a safer option.

    The current nasal spray, which is called FluMist, was made by combining nine different mutations of the flu virus. In the past, researchers believed that only five mutations were needed to make a strong vaccine, but Pekosz and his team believe otherwise. They state that using all nine mutations can create a better vaccine that includes fewer side effects.

    Pekosz and his team are currently working with MidImmune in order to develop even better versions of FluMist. If all goes well, then a new vaccine could be ready for both older and younger people within 6-12 months. The group’s findings have been published in the journal Vaccine

    With fall and winter just around the corner, the annual flu season will soon be upon us as well. Up to 20 percent of U.S. residents get the flu every year,...
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    Doctors push to eliminate most child vaccination exemptions

    Aging group urges greater vaccination effort for seniors

    Most states require immunizations for children, but nearly all allow for exemptions. These range from religious and philosophical reasons to medical ones.

    It's a contentious subject that rose to the surface in January when health officials blamed a new outbreak of measles on parents opting their children out of recommended vaccinations.

    The controversy may pick up where it left off now that the summer meeting of the Board of Regents of the American College of Physicians (ACP) has backed elimination of all vaccination exemptions, except those for medical reasons.

    'Risk to public health'

    "Allowing exemptions based on non-medical reasons poses a risk both to the unvaccinated person and to public health," said Dr. Wayne J. Riley, president of ACP. "Intentionally unvaccinated individuals can pose a danger to the public, especially to individuals who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons."

    The ACP Board of Regents said it supports:

    • The immunization of all children, adolescents, and adults, according to the recommendations and standards established by the U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), the National Vaccine Advisory Committee (NVAC), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
    • State laws designed to promote all recommended immunizations.
    • States passing legislation to eliminate any existing exemptions, except for medical reasons, from their immunization laws.

    "Physicians should help educate patients and parents about the risks of vaccine preventable diseases and the safety and effectiveness of vaccines,” Riley said. “Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases have been linked to communities of unvaccinated and under-vaccinated individuals."

    Riley maintains that the easier it is to receive an exemption, the higher the rate of exemptions in a particular state.

    “As the number of exemptions increases, the risk of vaccine-preventable disease has been found to increase,” he said. “Exemptions from evidence-based immunization requirements should be limited to medical indications in order to protect the public's health."

    That point of view faces stiff opposition from organizations that oppose mandatory vaccinations. The National Vaccine Information Center points out that medical exemptions are hard to come by.

    It says that in 2014, all 50 states allowed a medical vaccine exemption; 48 states allowed a religious vaccine exemption, and 17 states allowed a philosophical, conscientious, or personal belief exemption.

    Vaccines for seniors

    Meanwhile, the Alliance for Aging Research has issued a report, calling for greater vaccination efforts for seniors. Although influenza, pneumococcal, tetanus, and shingles vaccines are routinely recommended for older adults, the report says they are under-utilized.

    "Vaccinations are available for many of the most common and deadly infectious diseases in older Americans and can save countless lives and health care dollars," said Susan Peschin, president and CEO of the Alliance. "Unfortunately, vaccination rates in seniors fall far short of target rates recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)."

    The group says vaccinations for seniors are cost-effective, covered to varying degrees by health insurance, and prevent conditions that have relatively high incidence rates and disease burdens.

    Most states require immunizations for children, but nearly all allow for exemptions. These range from religious and philosophical reasons to medical ones....
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    Researchers report progress toward universal flu vaccine

    Success would mean a big drop in flu cases each year

    Every year health officials roll the dice when they assemble the annual flu vaccine. The vaccine is engineered to protect against the strains of flu most likely to hit the U.S.

    If they guess wrong, the flu vaccine ends up being much less effective. Wouldn't it be better if there could be some sort of all-purpose, universal flu vaccine?

    Scientists at Rockefeller University thought so, and went about trying to harness a previously unknown mechanism within the immune system to create vaccines that would protect against this constantly-mutating virus.

    “While the conventional flu vaccine protects only against specific strains, usually 3 of them, our experiments show that by including modified antibodies within the vaccine it may be possible to elicit broad protection against many strains simultaneously,” the authors wrote. “We believe these results may represent a preliminary step toward a universal flu vaccine, one that is effective against a broad range of the flu viruses.”

    Last year's vaccine

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studies the effectiveness of each year's vaccine to guard against the flu. Overall estimates for each season range from a low of 10% to a high of 60%. Last year's effectiveness was closer to the bottom – 23%.

    The Rockefeller University researchers' work revolved around chemical modifications to antibodies to make them more potent against the flu virus. A successful vaccine that proves effective against more strains of the flu would not only result in fewer illnesses, but fewer deaths too.

    The flu kills thousands of people in the U.S. every year. These victims, usually elderly, may have been vaccinated, but the predominant strain that infected them happened to be one not covered in the vaccine.

    Difficult task

    Vaccine makers' task is more difficult because flu strains can be so diverse and new ones are constantly emerging.

    Types A and B cause seasonal flu epidemics. Influenza A viruses are further broken down into subtypes based in part on their surface proteins, which include hemagglutinin, the “H” in H1N1, for example. The subtypes are further divided into strains.

    Today, when vaccine makers assemble a flu vaccine, they create a formula that targets 3 or 4 viral strains, along with a few influenza B strains. They base their selections on public health experts’ predictions for the coming flu season. When they're wrong, millions of people who get the shots may also get the flu.

    Because of that, researchers everywhere have sought a universal flu vaccine. Have the Rockefeller University researchers found it? They say the early results are encouraging.

    “The new mechanism we have uncovered...could potentially be harnessed to reduce the tremendous morbidity and mortality caused by seasonal influenza virus infections,” said Taia Wang, a member of the research team. “We are now looking into applying this strategy toward improving existing vaccines; ideally, this would result in a vaccine that provides life long immunity against flu infections.”

    Every year health officials roll the dice when they assemble the annual flu vaccine. The vaccine is engineered to protect against the strains of flu most l...
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    Researchers create two antibodies that could prove to be the first treatments for MERS

    Results in animal models have been promising so far

    Researchers have developed two possible treatments for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Both rely on the creation of two new antibodies that show an ability to neutralize the virus. This news comes at a fortuitous time, as the respiratory virus continues to affect hundreds of people in South Korea.

    MERS was first observed in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. Researchers believe that it spread to humans after affecting camels. It has similar qualities to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), in that both affect the respiratory system and can be fatal. Statistics show that MERS has a death rate of 40 percent, and it has killed more than 400 people since it was discovered.

    Promising results

    In order to combat this deadly virus, scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine have been testing two antibodies that have been proven to treat it in animal models. The results have been promising so far, and the researchers hope that further testing will show that the antibodies can be helpful to humans.

    “While early, this is very exciting, and has real potential to help MERS patients," said Matthew B. Frieman, who is the lead researcher and assistant professor at the University of Maryland. “We hope that clinical study will progress on these two antibodies to see whether they can eventually be used to help humans infected with the virus.”

    The researchers worked with representatives from Regeneron, which is a biopharmaceutical company based out of Tarrytown, NY. Using the company’s technology, both parties were able to develop the two antibodies, currently designated as REGN3051 and REGN3048.

    In order to properly test the antibodies, scientists also developed a new strain of mice that have been partially humanized in their physiology. This was necessary because MERS does not affect mice; the new models will help scientists immensely by allowing them to study potential treatments and understand how the virus causes disease in people.

    A glimmer of hope

    The recent outbreak of MERS in South Korea has spurred researchers onward to finding possible treatments. So far, approximately 180 people have been infected, and nearly 30 of them have died.

    “Prof. Frieman’s work provides the first glimmer of hope that we can treat and cure this threatening virus… I know that [the researchers] will continue to work hard to see whether these compounds can take the next steps to clinical trials,” said E. Albert Reece, who is the vice president of Medical Affairs at the University of Maryland and Dean of the School of Medicine. 

    ...
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    New $25 blood test can identify every virus you've ever had

    Experimental test can “read” the infectious history written in your immune system

    According to a research article published in the latest issue of Science, a new, still-experimental blood test called VirScan can identify almost every virus you've ever been exposed to, by testing only a single drop of your blood. Better still, this test is expected to only cost $25 to perform.

    On June 5, Science published a research article discussing “Comprehensive serological profiling of human populations using a synthetic human virome.” The study's senior author is Stephen Elledge, a professor of genetics and medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

    Elledge admits that the current version of the test has some limitations – it can overlook smaller viruses, or miss past infections for which the immune response has dwindled, but the test can apparently detect signs of exposure to over 1,000 strains from 206 different species of virus — almost every virus known to infect humans.

    The study's abstract page offers a brief explanation of how this works: “In addition to causing illness, viruses leave indelible footprints behind, because infection permanently alters the immune system. Blood tests that detect antiviral antibodies can provide information about both past and present viral exposures.” But researchers “developed a blood test that identifies antibodies against all known human viruses” by “[u]sing a synthetic representation of all human viral peptides.”

    Amino acids

    Peptides are combinations of amino acids, and amino acids are what combine to make various proteins. A virus, meanwhile, is essentially just a scrap or genetic material, either DNA or RNA, wrapped in a protein shell.

    Viruses are not considered living organisms in their own right, because they cannot reproduce by themselves (or in conjunction with other members of their species). Viruses can only reproduce by invading the cells of living organisms – usually plants, animals or bacteria – and then commandeering those living cells to produce new copies of the virus.

    When you get a virus, your immune system (ideally) responds by producing special proteins called “antibodies” to fight the viral infection. But traces of those antibodies will remain even after you've beaten that virus, which means you now enjoy what's called “acquired immunity” to that virus: even if you're exposed to that particular virus again, your immune system knows how to produce the necessary antibodies and fight off the virus before you even feel sick.

    Consider the viral disease people call “the common cold” even though it's technically inaccurate to talk about the common cold, because it's not a single disease. There are over 200 different viruses that cause cold-like symptoms in people, and once you've had a particular cold virus, you then enjoy acquired immunity to it.

    Something going around

    This explains, among other things, why young children seem to catch colds all the time, whereas middle-aged and older adults rarely do: all else being equal, the older you are, the more colds you've already had and thus the more acquired immunities you've collected. It also explains the occasional mystery “Seems like everybody in my social circle caught a nasty cold — except me. I wonder why I didn't catch it?” Maybe it's because you already had that particular strain of cold virus a few years ago, and acquired immunity before your current companions did.

    (Vaccines, meanwhile, work by using dead or weakened strains of certain viruses to stimulate the immune system into producing the right strain of virus-fighting antibodies without actually suffering from the viral infection.)

    So if your doctor wants to know whether you have or had a particular viral infection, it's relatively easy to find out by looking for those virus-specific antibodies in your blood. But VirScan promises to vastly streamline this process by testing not merely for one viral antibody, but almost all of them. This not only makes it easier to determine a patient's full viral history, but will also make it easier to detect and treat certain viral infections before the patient even shows symptoms.

    For example, people with hepatitis C have a pretty good prognosis if they are treated right away — but the disease usually takes awhile to develop noticeable symptoms, and by the time that happens the infection's advanced enough to be difficult to treat.

    Better treatment options

    In addition to improving treatment options for individual patients, VirScan also promises to make it much easier for researchers to study the overall history and development of certain diseases – how do they spread, and which populations are most vulnerable. It can also further research to study whether individual viruses or the body's own immune response to them could in turn lead to other diseases, or even in the development of certain cancers.

    As Stephen Elledge said, “I'm sure there’ll be lots of applications we haven’t even dreamed of. That’s what happens when you invent technology — you can’t imagine what people will do with it. They're so clever.”

    According to a research article published in the latest issue of Science, a new, still-experimental blood test called VirScan can identify almost every vir...
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    Vaccines developed for two strains of bird flu

    Scientists hopeful it can blunt future outbreaks

    Avian, or bird, flu, has devastated commercial chicken and turkey operations in the Midwest, resulting in the culling of millions of birds. But beyond its economic impact there are serious health concerns.

    In Asia strains of the avian flu have passed from bird to humans, with health officials estimating 1 in 3 humans who contract the illness die.

    Now, researchers in the U.S. have developed a vaccine for two new strains of bird flu. While providing some protection it is also expected to help researchers make additional vaccines for new strains of avian influenza more quickly.

    As a result, the number and intensity of large-scale outbreaks at poultry farms could diminish and transmission to humans become less of a threat.  Jürgen Richt, Regents director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases says it could also lead to flu vaccines for pigs and other livestock.

    H5N1

    Richt and his colleagues at Kansas State Univesity focused on H5N1, a new strain seen mostly in Indonesia, Egypt and other Southeast Asian and North African countries. H5N1 also has been found in wild birds in the U.S. but is not believed to be widespread.

    "H5N1 is a zoonotic pathogen, which means that it is transmitted from chickens to humans," Richt said. "So far it has infected more than 700 people worldwide and has killed about 60% of them. Unfortunately, it has a pretty high mortality rate."

    The new vaccine for H5N1 came about when scientists put 2 viruses together. Tests show that the combined virus was an effective vaccine for chickens against both Newcastle disease virus and H5N1.

    H7N9

    Next the scientists focused their efforts on the bird flu subtype H7N9, which has been infecting birds in China since at least 2013. Since then there have been about 650 cases of H7N9 in humans and some 230 people have died. There are aspects of the new virus that make it more dangerous than previous strains.

    "In Southeast Asia there are a lot of markets that sell live birds that people can buy and prepare at home," Richt said. "In contrast to the H5N1 virus that kills the majority of chickens in three to five days, chickens infected with the H7N9 virus do not show clinical signs of sickness. That means you could buy a bird that looks perfectly healthy but could be infected. If an infected bird is prepared for consumption, there is a high chance you could get sick, and about 1 in 3 infected people die."

    Again, tests showed that chickens vaccinated with the new Newcastle virus-based vaccine were protected against H7N9.

    Welcome news

    A vaccine that could stop bird flu from spreading would be welcome news to the poultry and egg industries. Nearly 40 million U.S. chickens have died or been exterminated as poultry producers try to stop the spread of the disease. That’s more than double the number lost in the last outbreak back in the 1980's.

    All of this is having an impact at the supermarket. Some turkey producers have warned of possible shortages of the Thanksgiving Day staple and egg prices are skyrocketing.

    The Wall Street Journal has reported wholesale prices for the eggs sold at supermarkets are up about 85% at $2.20 a dozen in parts of the country. Restaurants specializing in breakfast are also feeling the pinch and will likely pass along the higher costs to consumers.

    A vaccine that could limit the carnage would likely alleviate much of this economic fallout, though it isn’t known how quickly that could happen.

    Avian, or bird, flu, has devastated commercial chicken and turkey operations in the Midwest, resulting in the culling of millions of birds. But beyond its ...
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    Egg prices headed up as bird flu scrambles supply

    Nearly 40 million birds have died or been exterminated

    Gas may be cheaper this summer but that's not the case for another staple of daily life -- the lowly egg. Thanks to a massive outbreak of bird flu in the Midwest, there just aren't enough healthy chickens reporting for work each day to keep up with the demand.

    Nearly 40 million chickens have died or been exterminated as poultry producers try to stop the spread of the disease, more than double the number lost in the last outbreak back in the 1980's.

    Wholesale prices for the eggs sold at supermarkets are up about 85% at $2.20 a dozen in parts of the country, according to the Wall Street Journal. Similar increases are hitting industrial users like McDonald's, which could affect the price you pay at the drive-through window depending on how long it takes the nation's poultry flock to recover.

    No human risk seen

    There's no apparent risk, other than menu disruption, to humans from the H5N2 strain of avian influenza but it is hitting the bird population very hard. Scientists say the strain is a combination of a virus that originated in Asia and later combined with North American versions. It's apparently being spread through the droppings of wild ducks and geese.

    The disease is centered in the Midwest, leading Iowa state officials to announce a ban on live-bird shows for the rest of the year. Minnesota has done the same.

    "We are asking producers and bird owners to increase their biosecurity measures and we feel this is a needed step to further minimize the risk of spreading the virus," Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said. "The scale of this outbreak has been unprecedented, so we think it is important we take every possible step to limit the chance that this disease will spread any further."

    Iowa, the nation's top egg producer, has had 63 avian flu outbreaks affecting more than 25 million birds.

    Gas may be cheaper this summer but that's not the case for another staple of daily life -- the lowly egg. Thanks to a massive outbreak of bird flu in the M...
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    Bird flu outbreak could impact poultry supplies

    Hormel warns it will have less turkey product this year

    An outbreak of H5N2 avian, or bird flu, spread quickly this week through poultry operations in the upper Midwest, resulting in the deaths of millions of bird, potentially affecting supplies and prices for consumers.

    The disease was discovered in poultry operations in Osceola County, Iowa, a major egg-producing region. Hen losses have been estimated at 5.3 million.

    The impact on egg prices is unclear. Bloomberg News reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture had earlier projected an increase in 2015 egg production and a decline in prices from last year. So it is possible consumers will notice no increase in prices.

    Turkeys

    Earlier, in neighboring Minnesota, bird flu swept through at least 28 turkey-producing farms. Turkey losses are estimated at 1.7 million.

    The impact was severe enough that Hormel Foods, a publicly traded company, warned it would likely be felt when the company reported its quarterly earnings.

    “We are experiencing significant challenges in our turkey supply chain due to the recent HPAI outbreaks in Minnesota and Wisconsin,” said Jeffrey Ettinger, chairman and CEO of Hormel Foods.

    Ettinger said he expects the outbreaks will subside as the weather improves but in the short term Hormel will face “turkey supply challenges.”

    Hormel said its Jennie-O Turkey Store is managing the outbreak in cooperation with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and state agency officials. The company said all flocks are tested for influenza prior to processing and no birds diagnosed with HPAI are allowed to enter the food chain.

    Little risk for humans

    According to health officials, the outbreak is an economic issue at this point, not a public health problem.

    “The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Iowa Department of Public Health considers the risk to people from these HPAI H5 infections in wild birds, backyard flocks and commercial poultry, to be low,” the Iowa Department of Agriculture said in a statement. “No human infections with the virus have ever been detected.”

    Still, consumers should err on the side of caution. The department notes these virus strains can travel in wild birds without those birds appearing sick. People should avoid contact with sick or dead poultry or wildlife. If contact occurs, you should wash your hands with soap and water and change clothing before having any contact with healthy domestic poultry and birds.

    Bird owners – whether commercial producers or backyard flock owners – are being advised to prevent contact between their birds and wild birds. When birds appear sick or die suddenly, it should be reported to state or federal agriculture officials.

    Other strains

    There are several strains of bird flu. Earlier this month the avian A strain H7N9 was confirmed in areas near China's border with Myanmar. Like other strains of bird flu, it can be passed from bird to humans but not from human to human.

    The World Health Organization has called H7N9 an unusually dangerous virus for humans, with about 30% of people who get it dying.

    An outbreak of H5N2 avian, or bird flu, spread quickly this week through poultry operations in the upper Midwest, resulting in the deaths of millions of bi...
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    Mutating bird flu raises new pandemic worries

    But so far, no sign of human to human infection

    International health researchers are expressing concern about the H7N9 strain of the bird flu virus that has spread through chicken flocks in China. They worry that the virus is mutating, possibly enabling it to be passed from human to human.

    This week the bird flu virus was confirmed on some poultry farms in the U.S. U.S. inspectors confirmed the presence of a different bird flu strain -- H5N2 -- in turkeys in Arkansas.

    At present, bird flu is only passed from bird to bird or bird to human. And the only way humans can become infected is to have contact with an infected bird.

    Researchers at the University of Hong Kong, in a report in the journal Nature, also warn that the virus is exchanging genes with other types of flu bugs, raising the possibility of new strains of the virus in the future.

    Deja vu

    If this all sounds familiar, it should. The same fears of a mutating bird flu virus arose exactly 2 years ago when the H7N9 strain killed at least 24 people in China. The virus didn't mutate and health officials breathed a sigh of relief.

    In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in February that 2 Canadian travelers are the first cases of H7N9 in North America. The Canadians had recently visited China, the CDC said.

    The CDC says people traveling to China are safe as long as they avoid contact with poultry, including poultry markets and farms, wild birds and their droppings. There are no recommendations against travel to China.

    Human infections from the new avian influenza A H7N9 virus were first reported in China in March 2013. Most were believed to be the result of exposure to infected poultry or contaminated environments.

    Potentially lethal

    There have been some mild illnesses in human H7N9 cases but most patients have had severe respiratory illness, with about one-third resulting in death.

    “No evidence of sustained person-to-person spread of H7N9 has been found, though some evidence points to limited person-to-person spread in rare circumstances,” the CDC said in an advisory.

    The new H7N9 virus has not been detected in people or birds in the United States. Still, the cautionary research paper from the University of Hong Kong has placed health officials on alert.

    In their study the international team of scientists analyzed the spread of the virus over a wide area of China. They determined that the H7N9 virus is, in fact, mutating on a regular basis, taking on genetic changes that could increase its threat of causing a widespread outbreak.

    But mutations in general do not necessarily pose a threat. Only a mutation of the virus that allows it to be passed from human to human.

    So far, the scientists say, there has been no sign of that.

    International health researchers are expressing concern about the H7N9 strain of the bird flu virus that has spread through chicken flocks in China. They w...
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    New virus implicated in Kansas man's death

    The Bourbon virus is spread by ticks and mosquitoes

    A new health threat has emerged in Kansas, where a man died last spring from a disease possibly linked to a new virus. 

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it's the first time the Bourbon virus -- named for the county where the patient lived -- has been linked to human illness in the United States and only the eighth known case of human illness attributed to the group of viruses known as thogotoviruses.

    The Kansas man had received multiple tick bites in the days before becoming ill. After test results for many infectious diseases came back negative, a sample of the patient’s blood was sent to CDC for additional testing.

    Initial CDC testing showed evidence of an unidentified virus in the sample. CDC researchers then used Advanced Molecular Detection (AMD) and determined that it was a new virus. 

    Symptoms 

    Because there has been only one case identified thus far, scientists are still learning about possible symptoms caused by this new virus.

    In the one person who was diagnosed with Bourbon virus disease, symptoms included fever, tiredness, rash, headache, other body aches, nausea, and vomiting. The person also had low blood counts for cells that fight infection and help prevent bleeding.

    The CDC said that, since there is no vaccine or drug to prevent or treat Bourbon virus disease, preventing bites from ticks and other insects may be the best way to prevent infection.

    Information on preventing tick bites is available on the CDC Ticks website.

    A new health threat has emerged in Kansas, where a man died last spring from a disease possibly linked to a new virus. ...
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    Gallup: Flu wallops Americans

    The infection rate in December was the highest since Gallup began its flu surveys

    A ferocious virus is storming through North America, felling U.S. citizens at a rate higher than ever measure by the Gallup research organization.

    Ebola? No, flu. Americans nearly came unhinged when a handful of Ebola victims showed up for treatment last year but that was a mere drop in the ocean compared to the flu.

    Gallup reports that an average 4.0% of Americans reported being sick with flu on any given day in December -- more than all previous Decembers since Gallup began tracking the flu daily in 2008, and one of the highest rates for any month over the past 7 years. The all-time high is 4.7%, measured in January 2013.

    Given that reports of having the flu are typically highest in January or February, the 2013-2014 flu season could end up being the worst flu season in Gallup's records. However, it may also be that the flu is peaking early this season, as happened in 2009-2010, when the flu peaked in October amid the outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus.

    As we reported earlier this week, the flu is already being blamed for the deaths of 15 children and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found the flu "widespread" in 43 states. Nationwide, the CDC reports that 5.9% of doctor visits involved flu-like symptoms in the last week of December, up from 4.3% in the same week in 2013.

    At the CDC, director Dr. Tom Frieden says that however severe the season turns out to be, Americans need to be prepared.

    “We can save lives with a three-pronged effort to fight the flu: vaccination, prompt treatment for people at high risk of complications, and preventive health measures, such as staying home when you’re sick, to reduce flu spread,” Frieden said.

    This year's vaccine is not as effective as in some previous years because the flu virus continued evolving after the vaccine was formulated, so some strains don't respond to the vaccine. But that's no reason to skip getting a flu shot, CDC officials caution.

    According to its study of the 2012-2013 flu season, the CDC estimates that the flu vaccine prevented 79,000 hospitalizations and 6.6 million illnesses. Still, more than 381,000 Americans were hospitalized because of flu-related illness during that season.

    May be understated

    The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index asks Americans each day whether they were sick with the flu "yesterday." This differs from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's measure, which tracks influenza infections reported from doctors and hospitals. However, Gallup's data closely conform with CDC data for December. 

    In December, an average 11.6% of Americans reported they "were sick with a cold yesterday," the highest percentage Gallup has found for any month since 2008. Prior to December 2014, the highest rate was 10.8% in January 2013. The highest December reading before this year was in 2008, when an average 10.3% of Americans reported being sick with a cold.

    Generally, about three times as many Americans report having a cold as report having the flu.

    It is possible that Gallup's measures of daily cold and flu underestimate the true infection rate, because those who were sick the day before may be less likely to respond to a phone survey than those who were not sick.

    Additionally, it may be difficult for people to accurately self-diagnose the medical distinction between the flu and a cold, given the similarity in the symptoms of both conditions. Still, year-over-year comparisons provide useful information about the relative prevalence of flu and colds in the U.S. population.

    A ferocious virus is storming through North America, felling U.S. citizens at a rate higher than ever measure by the Gallup research organization....
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