New Influenza Treatment Another First For WA

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A lozenge designed to prevent influenza developed in Western Australia is part of a research-based world-first trial announced today.

A Department of Health grant of more than $100,000 was awarded to fund a clinical trial during this year’s cold and flu season to test the effectiveness of the treatment.

The trial will use lozenges, containing low doses of interferon alpha, which activates the body’s own immune system to prevent and reduce the incidence and severity of influenza and other respiratory viruses.

Researchers hope the preventive treatment could be useful in fighting regular seasonal flu and potentially also future influenza pandemics.

The study’s lead researchers Dr Manfred Beilharz and Clinical Professor David Smith said that the lozenges should also effectively protect against the common cold and other illnesses caused by a number of winter viruses.

Dr Beilharz said influenza, commonly called the flu, could cause or exacerbate various respiratory illnesses, including croup, bronchitis, asthma and pneumonia, and resulted in many people being hospitalised.

On average, about 10 per cent of the WA population catch influenza each year and about 200 people, who are mostly in at-risk groups such as the elderly, die from complications. Many more people are affected by other respiratory viruses and bacteria that cause winter colds and flu-like symptoms.

“A recent report showed the direct cost of seasonal flu to the Australian health care system was $85 million,” Dr Beilharz said.

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“This study has tremendous potential to benefit the many people affected by influenza and take a world leading role in the treatment of the disease.”

The trial will begin in May 2009 and is collaboration between the Department of Health, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and the University of Western Australia.

Researchers want to recruit 160 people who have regular exposure to colds and flu, to take part in the study, including staff from pre-school and primary school, aged care and hospital staff and airline workers.

Participants will be screened for eligibility, visit clinics twice over four months and report online on a weekly basis. Any cold and flu like symptoms will be reported and analysed via the online process.

Professor Smith said the WA study was another step to strengthen our defence against winter colds and flus and a potentially deadly influenza pandemic.

“Annual immunisation is still the best way to reduce your risk of getting influenza and reduce the severity of illness but, if oral interferon is shown to be effective, then it will be a valuable additional weapon in our fight against respiratory illnesses,” he said.

In another Australian first trial, for the second consecutive year all Western Australian children aged between six months and five years are being offered a free influenza vaccination to combat the illness.

Professor Smith said the prevalence of respiratory viral infections, including the possibility of a future influenza pandemic, highlighted the importance of ongoing investment and research limit the spread and impact of these infections.

The trial was one of 16 projects last year awarded a total of $2million in State Health Research Advisory Council (SHRAC) research grants, in areas of medical research that can translate results into health savings and efficiencies in the WA Health system.

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