Saturday, August 22, 2009

H1N1 Swine Flu hops to turkeys; threat not clear

Just when you thought it was safe to get a little sniffle, the swine flu virus has taken another potentially scary turn.

This bug known as H1N1, which has pieces of human, bird and pig flu in its genetic makeup, and which jumped earlier this year from hogs to humans, has now jumped again into birds.

In this case turkeys—specifically turkeys at a commercial turkey operation in Chile.

(Image: A Centers for Disease Control map shows Hawai'i has "regional" H1N1 flu, along with the southwestern states and the southeast. Only Alaska and Maine, with "widespread" flu, rank higher. Credit: CDC.)

Just what this means is not yet clear, and it might not be trouble, but it could be a step toward something bad. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are monitoring.

Meanwhile, the swine flu virus we're familiar with has continued to spread. It is in all parts of the United States, and 522 people have died—mostly people with other underlying health issues that became fatal when the flu virus was added to them.

This flu has comparatively mild symptoms, but it spreads more readily than normal seasonal flu. One of its interesting characteristics is that it is still around in August, when flu is comparatively rare.

“Most state health officials are reporting local or sporadic influenza activity. Two states are reporting widespread influenza activity at this time. Any reports of widespread influenza activity in August are very unusual,” says the CDC.

Most of the people who catch the flu tend to be younger, suggesting some previous flu bug provided older humans with some level of resistance. And most people who do get the flu are over it in a week.

In the swine-to-turkey story, the infected turkeys don't suffer serious symptoms, either.

International health officials can't seem to decide whether this transmittal to birds is curious or ominous. In the reporting, you get a little of both.

There are a few citations that express fear for a “superflu” which spreads as easily as H1N1 swine flu, but is also more frequently fatal. But while that has always been a possibility, there is no evidence that there's a new bug like that now.

An Associated Press story included this cautious note: "What the turkeys have is the human virus — there is no mutation at all," Deputy Health Minister Jeannette Vega told Chile's Radio Cooperativa on Friday.

Stay tuned.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

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