The flu can jump from animals to humans. A new strain of flu has emerged four times in the past 100 years. The one that emerged in 1918 killed 50 million people, which is why scientists watch these new flu strains so carefully.
Last fall, over 150 harbor seal pups washed up on the shores of New England beaches. Researchers discovered that they were killed by a new strain of flu, that evolved from bird flu. It had obviously gained the ability to spread from seal to seal.
In the July 31st edition of the New York Times, Carl Zimmer quotes biologist Katie Pugliares as saying, "Surfers were surfing into seals floating in the water."
Zimmer quotes immunologist W. Ian Lipkin as saying, "If it adapts better to animal hosts, it may well start to move into humans. This is clearly a virus for which we need some surveillance." It turns out that pigs are especially good at producing new flu strains because they can be infected by bird flu and mammal flu at the same time. The two kinds of virus can then combine, giving rise to a NEW hybrid strain. Lipkin says, "It could be the equivalent of an aquatic pig. The question mark is what it means for us."
He quotes evolutionary researcher Eddie Holmes as saying, "Just because we find a seal with mammal-adapted (flu) does not mean we're going to get a pandemic. At the moment, it's hard to say what the threat really is."
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