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Swine flu 101

image Given the extreme panic that some people have in response to the news on the swine flu outbreak, I was going to post a quick set of common questions & answers on Swine Flu, but found that the amazing David Bradley over at Science Base has already done that.
I’ve copied and pasted most of Bradley’s FAQ below, but the two key takeaways are:

  1. You DON’T need to avoid eating pork (big misconception about bird flu was also that eating chicken could give you bird flu – that won’t happen, and neither will eating pork cause swine flu)
  2. This is not some government engineered super-disease – scientists have suspected that if bird flu ever fully jumped into humans it would do so via pigs, because bird and human viruses both infect pigs – allowing those viruses to trade genes with each other. At the end of the day, viruses mutate – call it nature, God, fate, or plain statistics – but there’s no reason to suspect this is some sort of bioweapon.

And, without further ado:

What is swine flu?
Swine flu is a type A influenza virus present in pigs. Human infection is usually uncommon except among people who work and live closely with pigs.

What is unusual about the present strain?
The new strain is a hybrid of swine, human and avian flu viruses and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it can spread from human to human but the level of virulence is not yet clear.

What are the symptoms?
Symptoms are similar to regular human flu: fever and chills, a cough, sore throat, aching limbs, headaches, and general malaise. However, there are reports of swine flu also causing diarrhoea and vomiting. Pneumonia and respiratory failure can occur leading to death as also happens in regular human flu, which kills thousands of people every year.

Are there any drugs to treat swine flu?
Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) are the possible pharmaceutical frontline defence and are proving effective in treating patients diagnosed early enough. There is no vaccine.

Has the disease spread to the USA?
Cases in California, Texas, and Kansas, have already been confirmed and tests are being carried out on students at a school in New York.

How can we prevent the spread of swine flu?
People at risk should cover their mouth when they cough. They should regularly wash their hands with an alcohol-based cleaner and and avoid close contact with the sick. Patients with the disease should stay at home. There is no need to avoid eating pork.

Will there be a global flu epidemic?
“We do not know whether this swine flu virus or some other influenza virus will lead to the next pandemic,” says, Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC, “However, scientists around the world continue to monitor the virus and take its threat seriously.”

What does H1N1 mean?
The “H” refers to the viral hemagglutinin protein, and the “N” refers to the neuraminidase protein (enzyme). There are H1N2, H3N1, H3N2, and H2N3 strains of swine flu endemic in pig populations.

Why pigs?
Influenza viruses can exist endemically in pigs as well as birds and other species. The current strain of interest, swine flu, is endemic in pig populations in Mexico but has now spread to people.

Recent news?
It’s recently been reported that the swine flu virus is not a combination of genes from avian, human, and swine influenza viruses, but of multiple strains of swine influenza (which probably picked up a mutation allowing them to infect humans).

Please, don’t validate what is supposed to be a parody of human stupidity on the internet:image
(Image credit) (Image credit – XKCD)

EDIT: to reflect reports that suggest Swine Flu is not a composite of avian, human, and swine influenza, but a composite of three swine strains.

Published in Blog

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