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Antibody transplant: last resort for swine flu

Transferring antibodies from the blood of recovering swine flu patients to those still suffering from the virus could provide a treatment of last resort.

Ideally, those most at risk of flu should be vaccinated, and in mild cases antivirals like Tamiflu can be taken after infection to treat the virus.

But often vaccines have not been available or take-up has been low. Or symptoms appear late, so sufferers miss the 48-hour window in which the antivirals work best.

Ivan Hung from the University of Hong Kong and colleagues investigated possible alternatives for cases in which usual treatments were no longer an option, particularly focussing on young, previously healthy people with late-presenting symptoms.

Studies of the 1918 "Spanish" H1N1 flu outbreak showed that treating patients with antibodies from recovered patients could be beneficial. Hung's team wondered whether the same treatment might be used for today's H1N1 swine flu patients.

To find out, the team offered the treatment during the 2009 swine flu pandemic in Hong Kong to 93 people in intensive care who were suffering from H1N1 and had not responded to antivirals. Those who agreed to the treatment were injected with a single dose of plasma containing antibodies from recovered patients. Those who turned down the treatment were regarded as controls for the purposes of the study.

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