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Computer Prediction: Only Vaccine Can Stop Flu Pandemic -- but Strategies May Buy Time

Computer Prediction: Only Vaccine Can Stop Flu Pandemic -- but Strategies May Buy Time
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WebMD Health News

April 26, 2006 -- If a bird flu pandemic breaks out, only a vaccine -- one better than any existing flu vaccine -- can keep it from infecting virtually everyone in the U.S.  and the rest of the world.

That's the sobering prediction of a computer model developed by a team of U.K. and U.S. researchers. But the model offers hope, too. A range of public health strategies -- and luck -- might soften the blow. They also might buy enough time to bring an effective vaccine into play.

The computer model is the brainchild of researchers including Neil M. Ferguson, PhD, of London's Imperial College, and Donald S. Burke, director of the center for immunization research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"Unless you can put together several different strategies in an effective way, pandemic flu will run its course," Burke tells WebMD. "We may be able to depress the epidemic peak and lengthen the time course, but it will be difficult to stop one once it starts. Having said that, the strategies to mitigate a flu epidemic are important. They impact hundreds of thousands or even millions of people."

Ferguson, Burke, and colleagues report their findings in the April 26 advance online issue of Nature.

Rapid Spread, Little Time

Once a new-to-humans flu bug entered the country, U.S. cases would hit peak levels in only 60 to 80 days. For a vaccine to be effective, it would have to be deployed almost as soon as the pandemic started. A mere four-month delay in vaccine deployment would allow pandemic flu to sweep the world.

The predictions are based on a number of assumptions. Things may be better or worse in the event of a real pandemic. The point of the computer model isn't to predict the future. It's meant to simulate a pandemic to help evaluate which strategies would be most effective.

"It won't be 100% of people who get infected, but it will be close," Burke says. "The question is, can you do anything to make it less than that?"

There are three possible strategies to combat a new flu bug: vaccines, antiviral medicines, and social distancing and protective measures.

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