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UIHC developing new vaccine

BY MEGAN SANCHEZ | NOVEMBER 21, 2013 5:00 AM

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The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics has taken on the duty of finding a vaccine to prevent a deadly disease that recently broke out in China.

H7N9 is a new form of influenza found throughout China’s poultry. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 135 cases were found, and 44 people died this past spring.

In October, four more cases emerged. Officials say the disease has not escaped China, but the UIHC is one of eight U.S. institutions working to develop a preventative vaccine.

“This strain of influenza in China lead to about a 30 percent mortality rate, which is very high for any infectious disease,” said Patricia Winokur, the principal investigator on the project. “We’ve had very little spread from person-to-person at this time, but what we know is that influenza viruses can swap from genes very easily. It may be acquiring new genes to spread from person-to person and if that happens, we know that it would spread quickly.”

As of right now, only one to two cases have been found having spread from person-to-person. However, Winokur said there is a chance for those traveling throughout China to bring the disease back to the United States if the disease becomes transferable from person-to-person.

Winokur said one of the more challenging aspects is detecting the virus, because the symptoms are like those of a common cold. Therefore, travel history of a person is something officials have to constantly watch for.

Stephanie Holley, a UIHC nurse who is certified in infection prevention and control, said there are many dangers of this new disease.

“The concern is that when you see a new emerging infection in humans, especially that causes severe disease, we could see sustained spread and we’d have a pandemic,” she said. “Right now our influenza vaccines don’t have any protection for that.”

Winokur said China completely closed its poultry market to manage the disease spread. However, with cold weather coming back, and the reopening of the poultry market in the last few weeks, two new cases have arisen.

UI junior Xinran Gu said the province she’s from in China was largely affected by H7N9. However, she said she is not concerned about bringing the disease back with her when she goes home over winter break.

“From what I’ve heard, if the chicken is cooked, I think it’s fine, and I can’t get an infection,” she said. “It’s really serious in my area, but at this point, my family just avoids eating chicken meat.”

The research is still underway, but the UIHC has done vaccine trials with 176 volunteer patients. Winokur said doctors are trying to discover what the proper dose will be for the vaccine. When the vaccine is ready, Winokur said it would be up to vaccine companies where the doses will be sent.

Winokur said working at the UIHC allows her to be involved in cutting edge research, which is often a rewarding experience.

“Vaccines have such a special place in health care,” she said. “It’s one of those few times where you can really prevent disease, rather than treat once it has happened. That’s a unique role in medicine. We’re part of crafting something that could protect millions and millions of people.”


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