In mid February 2009, an influenza virus infecting pigs began to shift. It adopted some viral characteristics from avian, or bird, flu and started to target human-specific molecular patterns.
By the end of April, officials in Mexican began to notice that the typical influenza season wasn’t ending. On the contrary. An increasing amount of people were suffering from a type of flu dubbed “swine flu.”
Panic ensued, and tourism to Mexico plummeted. As hundreds of cases spread through America, a confused public overreacted. Entire school systems were shut down base off suspected cases, including Harvard Dental School.
The WHO declared a pandemic. Now, tens of thousands of people have been infected, and it’s starting to become clear that this flu is not so different from typical flu. But it is just a few mutations away from becoming extremely dangerous, and already has some troubling characteristics.
What is Swine Flu?
Swine flu is a new form of influenza that has become a pandemic. Importantly, it is active during a non-typical flu season, the summer. At the moment, it is gaining a lot of media attention and hysteria.
While partly derived from pigs, swine flu also contains genetic elements from types of bird flu.
Is it particularly dangerous?
The initial numbers made swine flu seem very dangerous. It seemed to have unusually high fatality and hospitalization rates, and seemed to infect mostly young people.
The numbers are much more reassuring now. Swine flu does not seem to be much worse than a normal flu. Roughly 2-5% of those infected with it in the USA require hospitalization, most of whom had existing problems.
But swine flu is a novel disease. In the two vital areas of the hemagglutinin binder and neuraminidase enzyme it is considerably different from past viruses, differing by up to 25% in molecular structure. This means our immune system is not ready to fight it.
Research shows that it can infect deep into the lungs, much like past pandemic causing influenzas.
Like all influenza viruses, swine flu is capable of quickly mutating and adopting new characteristics.
What’s the future look like?
A vaccine is rapidly being made for the swine flu. But there’s only so much we can do. Avian flu is also still around, and potentially changing to eventually become a pandemic in its own right.
Barring incredible advances, it is very highly likely that the next 10 or 20 years will bring a massive influenza pandemic of one form or another.