The staff who are most likely to come into contact with infected patients should be given an initial injection of the H5 vaccine now to ‘prime’ their immune system, the team from the University of Leicester said.
If a pandemic takes place, vaccinated staff could then be given a booster to protect them from the virus much more quickly, the team added.
The researchers studied outcomes of people who received a low-dose booster jab following initial vaccination with a strain of the H5 vaccine, compared with those receiving both vaccines together.
Over 80% of people who had the initial vaccine followed by the booster had an ‘excellent response’ to all strains of the H5 virus within one week, regardless of the strain with which they had been primed.
‘Unprimed’ subjects needed two doses and it took six weeks for them to produce protective levels of antibody.
Lead study author Iain Stephenson, consultant in infectious diseases at Leicester Royal Infirmary, said: ‘Even if the strain of the virus changes, proactive priming followed by a booster gives a very rapid immune response.
‘We should offer proactive priming to all healthcare staff at increased risk using whatever stockpiled vaccine we have.’
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: ‘These results suggest that we may have a greater flexibility in vaccination regimes than previously thought.’
He added: ‘The balance of the risks and benefits of vaccinating with a type of avian influenza that might never cause a pandemic, compared to the potential adverse effects that might emerge with widespread use of a vaccine, is unanswered.’