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Scientists develop avian flu test

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Scientists develop avian flu test

Two tests to diagnose avian flu in humans have been developed by British scientists.

The Health Protection Agency is unveiling the tests at a conference on Wednesday as part of its preparation plans to guard against a pandemic.

Bird flu has killed at least 25 people in east Asia this year and led to the culling of 200 million birds.

The flu cannot currently pass from person to person but scientists fear it could acquire the capability.

HPA chief executive Professor Pat Troop said the developments would be vital if there was a global outbreak.

Prof Troop said "Following the continued outbreaks among poultry in Asia, the threat of an avian flu pandemic is ever more real and the agency is committed to ensuring it has the capacity to respond should person-to-person transmission occur and if human cases are seen in the UK.


"It is essential our plans are up-to-date, and that we have the ability to diagnose the disease quickly so as to respond as effectively as possible."

The tests developed by the HPA include a rapid test, called a polymerase chain reaction test, which is capable of identifying if a person is infected with avian flu within hours.

The test uses the same method employed to identify Sars.

Dr Maria Zambon, director of the HPA Influenza laboratory, said: "Being able to rapidly diagnose if people are suffering from avian flu is essential, so that we can take the appropriate public health action to best protect the population."

The second tests identifies if people have been exposed to avian flu by measuring the antibody response they produce.

The antibody test, which is currently only used by the HPA and Centres for Disease Control in the US, is particularly useful as it can be used to test vaccines, according to the HPA.

The tests will be unveiled at the final day of the HPA conference at Warwick University on Wednesday.

Officials also looked at how effective entry screening at UK airports would be if an epidemic of either Sars or influenza occurred in one of the top 100 international travel hubs.

But researchers found that only a small number of infected people would be identified, as the long incubation period for both diseases means few would show the symptoms by the time they arrived.

A 90% reduction in travel to and from areas affected by an outbreak would only delay epidemics elsewhere by a week, they concluded

The researchers suggested interventions at a local level such as the use of antiviral drugs or vaccines would be more effective in delaying the spread of the outbreak.


John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary's School of Medicine, said the PCR test could be a real breakthrough.

"PCR tests were effective during Sars and if the HPA has got the balance right it should work well.

"The tests tend to be very accurate so sometimes they can pick up a small trace of a virus when it is not doing much harm. You've got to get the sensitivity right."

However, Prof Oxford said he remained doubtful whether the antibody test was a huge step towards developing a vaccine.

"If we had an outbreak in six months we would still not have a vaccine ready."

The HPA developments came after several new reports of bird flu in east Asian countries.

Three suspected new cases were recorded in north east Malaysia at the weekend and two Thai children were admitted to hospital on Monday for treatment.

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