Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
You probably can’t remember the first time you came down with the flu as a kid. But new evidence indicates that the human immune system never forgets its first encounters with an influenza virus, possibly even using that immunological “memory” to protect against future infections by novel strains of avian influenza, or bird flu.
In a study that looked at cases of bird flu in six countries in Asia and the Middle East between 1997 and 2015, an NIH-supported research team found that people born before 1968 were at lower risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from the H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus than were those born afterwards . Just the opposite was true of another emerging strain of bird flu. People born before 1968 were at greater risk of becoming seriously ill or dying of H7N9, while those born after that date were more often protected.
As you may know from recent news reports, there have been lapses in safety practices at federal laboratories involving potentially lethal microbes such as avian flu (H5N1) and anthrax, including an incident involving discovery of 60-year old smallpox vials in an FDA laboratory building located on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, MD. Such lapses, which undermine public confidence in biomedical research and could put people’s health at risk, remind us of the need for constant attention to biosafety standards.
Scientists can never become complacent in routine safety practices—one mistake could have serious repercussions. Consequently, we at NIH are taking remedial action and precautionary steps to improve our lab safety protocols and procedures, minimize the risk of recurrence, and increase timely reporting of potential problems.