Influenza A viral infection causes substantial annual morbidity and mortality worldwide, particularly for infants, the elderly, and the immunocompromised. The virus mainly replicates in the respiratory tract and is spread by respiratory secretions. A growing concern is the recent identification of H5N1 strains of avian influenza A in Asia that were previously thought to infect only wild birds and poultry, but have now infected humans, cats, pigs, and other mammals, often with fatal results, in an ongoing outbreak. A human pandemic with H5N1 virus could potentially be catastrophic because most human populations have negligible antibody-mediated immunity to the H5 surface protein and this viral subtype is highly virulent. Whether an H5N1 influenza pandemic will occur is likely to hinge on whether the viral strains involved in the current outbreak acquire additional mutations that facilitate efficient human-to-human transfer of infection. Although there is no historical precedent for an H5N1 avian strain causing widespread human-to-human transmission, some type of influenza A pandemic is very likely in the near future. The possibility of an H5N1 influenza pandemic has highlighted the many current limitations of treatment with antiviral agents and of vaccine production and immunogenicity. Future vaccine strategies that may include more robust induction of T-cell responses, such as cytotoxic T lymphocytes, may provide better protection than is offered by current vaccines, which rely solely or mainly on antibody neutralization of infection.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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