A particularly virulent and lethal strain of H5N1 has been spreading rapidly throughout bird populations across the globe. According to the World Health Organization, there have been 306 known cases of the virus infecting humans, leading to 185 fatalities.
To date, transmission from infected birds to humans is unlikely, and most of those infected have been poultry workers. There have been no documented cases of human-to-human transmission. However, health experts worry that the virus could easily mutate into more highly contagious forms. If this happens, the results could be comparable to the 1918 flu pandemic, in which up to 100 million people died in only 18 months.
Researchers from Switzerland, the United States and Vietnam found that the antibodies from survivors provided a protective benefit to other mice both before and after infection with H5N1. They also decreased the rate at which the virus spreads into the lungs and almost entirely prevented it from spreading to the brain or spleen. The treatment was found to be effective up to 72 hours after infection.
"We have shown that this technique can work to prevent and neutralize infection by the H5N1 bird flu virus in mice," said Cameron Simmons, a Wellcome Trust researcher at the Oxford University clinical research unit in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. "We are optimistic that these antibodies, if delivered at the right time and at the right amount, could also provide a clinical benefit to humans with H5N1 infections."
During the 1918 pandemic, blood from survivors was used as an effective treatment for other patients.
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