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Health Highlights: April 11, 2014

H5N1 Bird Flu a Few Gene Mutations Away From Spreading Easily Among People: Study

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

H5N1 Bird Flu a Few Gene Mutations Away From Spreading Easily Among People: Study

The deadly H5N1 bird flu virus is only five gene mutations away from being able to spread easily among people, according to scientists.

The virus has killed 60 percent of the 650 people confirmed to have been infected with it, and health experts have long worried that H5N1 will eventually develop an airborne method of transmission between people and cause a devastating pandemic, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In a new study using ferrets, researchers concluded that H5N1 requires only five favorable gene mutations to be able to be passed from person to person through sneezing and coughing, like regular flu viruses.

But the authors of the study published Thursday in the journal Cell also said it's unclear if these mutations are likely to occur outside the laboratory, the Times reported.

"This certainly does not mean that H5N1 is now more likely to cause a pandemic," said study co-author Ron Fouchier, a virologist at Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands. "But it does mean that we should not exclude the possibility that it might happen."

He and his colleagues used ferrets because their immune system response to H5N1 is similar to that in people. The researchers used a strain of H5N1 that had previously infected a person and altered its genes.

Different versions of altered viruses were sprayed into the noses of ferrets. An infected ferret was placed in a cage with an uninfected ferret, but the layout of the cage prevented the two animals from having direct physical contact, the Times reported.

If the uninfected ferret developed flu symptoms, the researchers knew that the altered virus had spread through the air. That's how they determined that five key gene mutations are needed to enable H5N1 to spread through the air between people.

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