Something strange is going on: Normally, this is the peak period for the flu in the United States. But that just doesn’t seem to be the case this year. Since both bird flu and swine flu turned out to be scares that went nowhere, many people are turning their backs on new flu scares, considering them to be just more hype. But should they? When scientists combined the two viruses in a lab, the newly-created virus proved extremely lethal to mice. If it happens in nature, what will it do to us?
The number of states reporting widespread cases of the flu mysteriously plunged from 49 at the end of October to zero at the beginning of the January, according to the CDC. At the beginning of March, most states are only reporting sporadic cases of the flu. It seems only a few short weeks ago when medical authorities declared a flu pandemic, the first in more than 40 years, and warned that because of the simultaneous existence of both the H1N1 and regular seasonal flu strains, the 2009-10 flu season could wind up as one of the worst on record.
Flu expert Dr. Michael Koller says, “This flu season isn’t like any other I’ve ever lived through. We haven’t had a flu pandemic since 1968 and all the rules go out the window with a pandemic. We don’t know what to expect.”
Scientists aren’t sure that dismissing the problem is a good idea because genetic interactions between avian H5N1 (bird flu) influenza and human seasonal flu viruses have the potential to create hybrid strains combining the virulence of bird flu with the pandemic ability of swine flu. Two viruses infecting a single host cell can swap genetic material, creating hybrid strains with characteristics of each parent virus.
In laboratory experiments in mice, a single gene segment from a human seasonal flu virus was able to convert the bird flu virus into a highly pathogenic form. Virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka says, “Some hybrids between H5N1 virus and seasonal influenza viruses were more pathogenic than the original H5N1 viruses. That is worrisome.”
The H5N1 bird flu virus has spread worldwide through bird populations and has caused 442 confirmed human cases and 262 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. To date, however, bird flu has not been able to spread effectively between people. Kawaoka says, “H5N1 virus has never acquired the ability to transmit among humans, which is why we haven
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