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Flu Shots, Vaccines, Bird Flu and Swine Flu

Why pregnant women shouldn't skip out on their annual flu shot

Researchers say the shot provides important protections for a growing baby

Despite previous studies to the contrary, there are still many pregnant women who choose not to get their flu shot for fear of harming their unborn child. But new findings show that the vaccine often protects children, even when it is not as effective for moms.

Researchers from The Ohio State University conducted a study to see how flu shots affected pregnancy and found that moms-to-be who had previously gotten a flu shot had a less active antibody response in subsequent years. However, they say that the protections provided to unborn children were not affected, and that getting an annual flu shot is still recommended.

"The good news is that we found that the benefits of maternal vaccination for the baby were not affected by prior vaccination in the mothers," said researcher Lisa Christian. "Women who get a flu shot year after year will likely see their initial antibody response weakened over time, but these data suggest it does not meaningfully affect protection in their babies. This is of clinical importance because many people are vaccinated annually, as recommended."

Providing protection for babies

The researchers came to these conclusions after administering a flu vaccine to 141 pregnant women, 91 of which had received a flu shot in the previous year and 50 who hadn’t. After analyzing outcomes, they found that women who hadn’t had a flu shot in the previous year had stronger initial immune responses to the vaccine.

"The flu shots help us develop antibodies to protect us from the flu virus. However, not everyone shows the same antibody responses to the vaccine,” explains Christian. “One key factor that can affect antibody responses is repeated vaccination. Growing evidence shows that those who received a flu shot in the prior year have lower antibody responses in the current year.”

While the results reinforced previous findings for adults, the researchers were curious to see how effective the vaccinations were for unborn children. To find out, they tested the pregnant women throughout their pregnancies and, upon delivery, tested blood from the umbilical cord to see if the vaccine had adequately transferred to the baby while it was in the womb. They found that the flu shot provided protections to the baby regardless of the mother’s immune response.

“Women who get a flu shot year after year will likely see their initial antibody response weaken over time, but it’s ultimately not going to affect their babies. Our study found that by the time of delivery, both mom and baby were well protected,” Christian said.

The full study has been published in Vaccine.

Despite previous studies to the contrary, there are still many pregnant women who choose not to get their flu shot for fear of harming their unborn child. But new findings show that the vaccine often protects children, even when it is not as effective for moms.

Researchers from The Ohio State University conducted a study to see how flu shots affected pregnancy and found that moms-to-be who had previously gotten a flu shot had a less active antibody response in subsequent...

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    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 s...

    A nasty flu season could interfere with spring vacation season

    A building flu season and spring break could create a perfect storm of coughing and sneezing

    We're now at the peak of flu season, with the spring break travel season coming up fast. The two together could be a recipe for disaster.

    AIG Travel reports the current flu season is particularly nasty. The flu hospitalization rate was 29.4 per 100,000 people a month ago, compared to just over five per 100,000 at the same time last year.

    That means the person in the seat next to you on an airplane has a much better chance of being in some stage of the flu.

    AIG Travel's global medical director, Dr. William Spangler, says there are things travelers can do to minimize their risks.

    Not too late to get a flu shot

    Step number one is to get a flu shot if you haven't already been vaccinated this flu season; Spangler says it's the single most important thing you can do to reduce your chances of getting sick. The vaccine needs about two weeks to become effective, so don't wait until just before your departure.

    While getting vaccinated is important, you shouldn't stop there. Spangler says travelers should frequently wash their hands, since a flu vaccine won't protect against all strains of the virus.

    You might feel silly doing it, but taking what might appear to be extreme cleanliness measures could prevent you from getting sick. On an aircraft, carry disinfecting wipes to wipe down tray tables and arm rests, or other public surfaces you might come in contact with.

    Staying healthy by eating right and getting plenty of sleep may also help. Some people take Vitamin D supplements, for example, but medical professionals are somewhat leery about its effectiveness. It's best to talk to your doctor before going down that path.

    If you're sick, stay home

    Finally, if you feel like you're coming down with the flu, by all means stay off of commercial aircraft. Don't subject fellow travelers to possibly getting sick.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu usually hits you suddenly. Symptoms usually include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches, headaches, and fatigue.

    Most people who get the flu will recover in less than two weeks with proper treatment and bed rest. However, it can be a serious, life-threatening illness for some, including the very old and very young. Some people suffer sinus and ear infections as a result of the flu.

    We're now at the peak of flu season, with the spring break travel season coming up fast. The two together could be a recipe for disaster.AIG Travel rep...

    Flu vaccination rate running behind last year

    Health officials worry that older consumers are skipping the shots this year

    As the U.S. enters flu season, consumers should have gotten their flu shots by now, to provide protection over the winter and spring, when flu outbreaks are heaviest.

    But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports Americans have been slow to roll up their sleeves. Fewer than two out of five people so far have opted for the vaccine.

    The health agency, naturally, wants more people to get vaccinated. It says the vaccine prevented an estimated five million cases of the flu last season.

    Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, says she's pleased that many people have already taken advantage of the vaccine, but she is also concerned that the coverage rate is running behind last year.

    A proven tool

    "We have a tool that is proven to prevent flu illness and hospitalization but millions of people are not taking advantage of it,” she said. “Too many people are unprotected."

    The CDC is especially concerned about the vaccination rate among older adults. While the rate for children is running close to last year's, CDC estimates have found flu shots among older adults is lagging. Flu poses the biggest threat to the very young and very old.

    "It's too soon to say whether vaccination in people 50 and older will rebound this season. We certainly hope it will," Messonnier said.

    The CDC estimates that about a third of people between ages 50 and 64 have medical conditions that put them at high risk of serious flu complications. While a flu shot might not prevent someone getting the virus in every case, it usually lessens its negative effects.

    Economic impact

    The flu is not just a health threat. As we reported back in October, the illness carries very real, and very steep, financial costs. Researchers report that American consumers spent $5.8 billion on medical costs connected to the influenza virus. In fact, consumers spent roughly $9 billion in 2015 on treating diseases that can be prevented with a vaccination.

    CDC statistics suggest a majority of American adults passed up on a flu shot last year. The agency is concerned that the preliminary numbers show that, at least so far, more are avoiding the vaccine this year.

    That, the agency warns, could have serious repercussions, both economically and healthwise.

    As the U.S. enters flu season, consumers should have gotten their flu shots by now, to provide protection over the winter and spring, when flu outbreaks ar...

    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...

    Scientists create designs for new universal flu vaccines

    They are expected to protect against 95% of U.S. flu strains and 88% of all global flu strains

    October is finally here, but along with fall foliage and the annual seasonal holidays, consumers also have to prepare for the start of flu season. Getting a flu shot can provide some protection against the influenza virus, but the vaccine is not a guarantee of good health.

    Health officials and researchers have worked for years to improve the flu vaccine, but current methods can be hit or miss when it comes to their effectiveness – and this can be disastrous for public health.

    "Every year we have a round of flu vaccination, where we choose a recent strain of flu as the vaccine, hoping that it will protect against next year's strains. We know this method is safe, and that it works reasonably well most of the time,” explains Dr. Derek Gatherer of Lancaster University. "However, sometimes it doesn't work -- as in the H3N2 vaccine failure in winter 2014-2015 -- and even when it does it is immensely expensive and labour-intensive. Also, these yearly vaccines give us no protection at all against potential future pandemic flu."

    In order to address this problem, an international team of researchers have designed a new class of universal flu vaccines by using groundbreaking computational techniques. These new methods allowed researchers to analyze flu strains, vaccines, and the human immune system to generate what the authors believe to be a longer-lasting, more effective means of fighting the influenza virus.

    Creating a better vaccine

    With their work, researchers from the universities of Lancaster and Aston in the UK and the University of Complutense in Madrid were able to design two universal flu vaccines.

    The first vaccine is specific to the United States and is expected to cover 95% of known influenza strains in the country. The second is a universal vaccine that will supposedly cover 88% of all global flu strains. The researchers are currently seeking pharmaceutical partners to synthesize the vaccines so that a laboratory proof-of-principle test can be conducted.

    This new generation of vaccines will be unique because it was created using short flu virus fragments called epitopes. By selecting a range of epitopes that are already recognized by our immune systems, the researchers say they were able to create vaccines that can protect the vast majority of the world population.

    "Epitope-based vaccines aren't new, but most reports have no experimental validation. We have turned the problem on its head and only use previously-tested epitopes. This allows us to get the best of both worlds, designing a vaccine with a very high likelihood of success," said Dr. Darren Flower of Aston University.

    If proven to be effective, the new vaccines could help save countless lives around the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that annual flu epidemics cause up to 500,000 deaths per year, and previous pandemics, like those that took place in 1957 and 1968 caused millions to die.

    The full study has been published in the journal Bioinformatics.

    October is finally here, but along with fall foliage and the annual seasonal holidays, consumers also have to prepare for the start of flu season. Getting...

    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...

    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,...

    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....

    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...

    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. 

    ...

    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...

    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 ...

    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...