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The New FIV Vaccine

Friend or Foe?


When the new vaccine for FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) was announced in March, 2002, it met with enthusiasm from the medical community, not only for its potential value to cats, but also as it was hoped to pave the road toward a vaccine against human AIDS.

The patents for the FIV vaccine are owned by the University of California and the University of Florida, and are licensed to Fort Dodge Animal Health, a division of Wyeth, for manufacture, under the name of "Fel-O-Vax FIV."

History of FIV and the FIV Vaccine

The FIV virus was first isolated in cats in 1986 at UC Davis, by immunologist Janet Yamamoto and Niels Pedersen. Yamamoto started working on a vaccine for FIV at UC Davis, and later continued her work at the University of Florida, along with researchers at Fort Dodge Animal Health. Pedersen, who is the director of the Center for Companion Animal Health, is considered an expert in the field of retroviruses and immunologic disorders of small animals. He has tributed the approval of the FIV vaccine to Dr. Yamamoto, for her decade-long devotion to the project.

Others Have Reservations

Shortly after the announcement of FDA approval for the FIV vaccine, as more information came forth, emails began circulating among cat rescue groups because of one fatal flaw: All current methods of testing for the FIV virus will show a "positive" for cats vaccinated with the FIV vaccine. What this means to you or me is frightening in its ramifications. If we vaccinate our cats against FIV and one of them is lost, or simply gets picked up by an animal control officer, it will likely be destroyed as an FIV-positive cat. There is simply no way of knowing which "positive" cat is truly infected and which cat has simply been vaccinated against FIV. It is no wonder that the reception of this vaccine has been less than enthusiastic among the greater community of cat lovers, particularly in the U.S., where FIV strikes only 2% of the cats "at risk."

In response to numerous inquiries from veterinarians and rescue groups, the AAFP has issued an FIV Vaccine Brief, but they seem noncommital about recommending it. In the article's conclusion, Dr. James Richards (director of the Cornell Feline Health Center and AAFP Board Member) was quoted as saying, "The question then comes up: do I use the vaccine or not use the vaccine? In my view, the major concern is testing confusion. When clients come to you with questions about using the vaccine, it's a situation where you need to spend some time talking about the pros and cons of vaccination.

"If the client decides, under your counsel, that vaccination is something they want to do, I would certainly make sure to test that cat beforehand."

Other Causes for Concern:

  • Does Not Provide Full Protection
    Although there are five strains (called Clades) of FIV, the vaccine was developed by only using two strains. Clade B, which is common in the U.S., particularly in the east, was not one of those two, nor was the vaccine's efficacy tested against Clade B.
  • The Vaccine is Adjuvanted
    Since Adjuvants are suspect in VAS (vaccine-associated sarcomas), yet another vaccine with an added adjuvant is unlikely to be met with much approval among feline practitioners. For more information on adjuvants, see " The Vaccination Conundrum," a companion article.
Despite its low incidence in the United States, FIV is a dreaded disease, always ultimately fatal to cats that contract it. I can attest to this fact after my experiences with Shannon, who succumbed to FIV-related disease in 2001. It is hoped that testing for FIV will improve enough to eliminate that negative side effect in the future, and that a non-adjuvanted vaccine can be developed. This vaccine is a huge breakthrough in the scientific world, and its potential is awesome. However, for now, like many cat lovers, I'll "wait and see."

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