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Hungarian Scientists Develop New Vaccine for Bird Flu

Hungarian officials say they have developed a vaccine for the bird flu. It uses a technique that could also accelerate the production of a different vaccine in case the H5N1 virus mutates into a different form. VOA's Setareh Sieg and Valer Gergely prepared this report from Budapest. Their story is narrated by Carol Pearson.

International health officials are worried that the Asian strain of avian flu that recently appeared in southeastern Europe may mutate to a new strain that could be contagious among humans. Fear of the avian flu has resulted in decreased consumption of poultry in many European countries.

In Hungary, health authorities have been closely tracking the danger of a potential avian flu epidemic. The country has drawn up a national plan to protect both humans and animals. Jeno Racz, the Minister of Health, says Hungary has developed a new vaccine.

"The first human test proved to be positive and our blood produces antibody. We can say the work of the excellent Hungarian scientists proved to be successful."

The World Health Organization, WHO, had provided a modified version of the H5N1 virus to a number of countries that were prepared to produce a vaccine.

"I am also one of those who were vaccinated,” said Mr. Racz. “I have to emphasize this is a vaccine against the H5N1 virus. This may not work properly against a future virus that is not even developed, since we can develop a vaccine only against an existing virus".

But Mr. Racz says this vaccine has great significance. It can provide protection for those who work in direct contact with birds, and it gives Hungary the methodology to produce an effective vaccine in the case of a pandemic.

"The only thing we have to do is to replace the present virus with the new one,” the health minister told us. “In a few weeks we can develop a new vaccine that can save human lives by shortening the time of development before an epidemic becomes wide spread."

Experts say that, while further tests are needed, the Hungarian vaccine could represent a breakthrough when compared with other vaccines against bird flu. Although manufacturing the Hungarian vaccine costs more, tests show it develops a stronger immune response than the other vaccines. The Hungarian scientists also used an additive for long-term effectiveness.

While the current bird flu is not easily transmitted to humans, Dr. Racz says statistics suggest gene mutations that allow human-to-human transmission produce a pandemic virus every 50 to 60 years.

“The Spanish flu in 1918-19, then the Hong Kong flu in 1968 were developed as a result of such a gene mutation. It is obvious that we have to be prepared for this as well. At the same time the WHO and the European health agencies believe the population in Europe is not in an imminent danger, except those who work in a direct contact with birds that may carry this virus.”

Dr. Racz says that, while Hungarian authorities take the preparation for a possible bird flu epidemic seriously, they also want to avoid causing panic.

“The appearance of the H5N1 bird flu virus resulted in the slaughter of 160 million poultry in Southeast Asia. One hundred twenty people became contaminated and half of them died. This shows that we have to take it seriously. At the same time there is a dimensional difference between the 160 million and the 120.”

Some experts believe that media coverage of the avian flu has created a "mass psychosis." The health minister says even in case of a pandemic, there is no reason to vaccinate everyone.

“According to the WHO, vaccinating one third of the population can stop a pandemic,” continued Dr. Racz. “If we compare it with other illnesses such as the worldwide HIV, the risk of spreading this flu among people is small. We can compare our approach to a general's tactic who says: "prepare for war, live in peace and keep the ammunition dry." This is exactly what we do against the flu.

The test of whether Hungary -- and the rest of the world -- is ready for a new killer strain of flu will come if and when the virus mutates and produces a human pandemic