Swine Flu: Past, Prevention and Future

child licks pig snout photo

What not to do. Photographer unknown

As we wait for answers on the source of the current H1N1 influenza outbreak, TED looks below the surface with a short interview with global health and emerging disease expert Laurie Garrett. Garrett is the author of The Coming Plague, and a fellow on the Council for Foreign Relations. Click through for her take on the role of humans, hogs and hand washing plus a look at future pandemic possibilities. One of the big questions is where and how did the H1N1 strain evolve?

But it's really important to understand -- in the big picture, stepping away from the immediate situation -- it's not coincidental that we're looking at a virus that seems to have elements genetically from at least three species of host, human, bird and pig, and even the pig pieces seem to come from a minimum of six different input points. This is the most deeply mosaiced virus that we've seen circulating in humans. And it has erupted from the pork industry. So we have these giant industrial-scaled pork plants where the pigs are literally snout to snout -- you have an infection start at one end, and it just zips through the whole darn place.

Garrett's view of multiple input points for the virus is significant, as is her point about how the virus is spreading.

Pigs are passing their viruses to humans, but more significantly, humans are passing their viruses to pigs. H1N1 appears to have been a human virus that passed through pigs, through birds, back through pigs, it took a few more turns, and then back to humans.

We have these new ecologies that are complete artificial and completely bizarre. Imagine a row of neatly stacked dominoes all stacked in the same way. Think of the pork industry as the dominoes. You're creating these perfect environments for disease. We know it's better to have a heterogeneous population, and this is a huge wake-up call.

Handwashing, yes.
Well, I think handwashing is going to help, and you should wash your hands.

Masks, maybe.
I think the primary purpose of a mask is to scare the heck out of the people you're talking to, and then they stay 5 feet away. They don't keep viruses away, they keep people away.

For the average person, I really think the primary person of the mask is to scare other people. Although, if you are sick and you cough, most of the droplets do end up inside the mask, so you are protecting other people.

What does the future hold. Is a pandemic inevitable?

...one of the things that's interesting about why flu is seasonal, and is the sort of bad-news endpoint of the paragraph I am now uttering: When flu is coughed or you sneeze it, the virus is suspended in a liquid environment.

Suspended in mucus, the virus can go from your hand to a doorknob, from a doorknob to another person's hand; it can go onto the surface of a telephone ... all those things are contagious to others. Mucus also protects the virus from ultraviolet rays. One reason flu is seasonal -- as the temperature rises, these things tend to dry out. So in the summer, it's very, very unusual to see flu virus circulating. The bad new is, if this virus has indeed taken hold, it will move to the Southern hemisphere for their winter, and it will come back to us, possibly in a different mutation, this fall. As our temperatures drop, we may see a return. This is the ominous issue.

via TED
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Pork Chops Won't Give You Swine Flu, But Here Are Other Reasons to Abstain
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