swine flue, mexico city swine flu
Gregory Bull/AP
A couple wears surgical masks while riding
the subway in Mexico City, Mexico after an
outbreak of swine flu.

Swine Flu Returns to the Headlines

April 24, 2009 07:30 PM
by Mark E. Moran
Swine flu, the subject of a panic-driven national vaccination drive in 1976, has caused outbreaks in Mexico, Texas and California.

Assessing Severity of the Swine Flu Outbreaks

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is investigating seven cases of swine influenza A viral infection in California and Texas. The World Health Organization, which is monitoring the situation, reports that the known cases in the United States are mild, with only one case requiring a brief hospitalization, and no deaths. The CDC has confirmed that the disease is spreading through human to human contact.

Swine flu first became well-known to Americans in 1976 after an outbreak among 500 soldiers, one of whom died, at Fort Dix, N.J. Later that year, the federal government implemented a vaccination program against swine flu. The vaccine caused serious complications in hundreds of people, and was halted after a few months.

Swine flu is a respiratory disease of pigs caused by type A influenza viruses. Human infections are unusual, but do happen. Most commonly, human cases of swine flu happen in people who are around pigs. However, it is possible for swine flu viruses to spread from human to human.

The situation is more serious in Mexico. There, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported nearly 900 serious cases of the flu in the last month, with 62 deaths. The flu in Mexico has not yet been confirmed to be swine flu, although it is believed to be associated with an animal virus. Symptoms in the Mexican cases have included fever, headache, eye pain, shortness of breath and extreme fatigue, leading to severe respiratory distress.

In an unusual twist, most cases in Mexico have been reported in healthy adults. The elderly and the very young, which usually are the hardest hit by the flu, have not been significantly affected. Some of the strains found in the United States are identical to some found in Mexico.

WHO advises that, with respect to the situation in Mexico, “Because there are human cases associated with an animal influenza virus, and because of the geographical spread of multiple community outbreaks, plus the somewhat unusual age groups affected, these events are of high concern.”
The viruses implicated in this outbreak have not been previously detected in pigs or humans. WHO reports that the viruses appear to respond to treatment with oseltamivir, but resist both amantadine and rimantadine.

William Schaffner, a flu expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn., told Bloomberg that the investigation of the outbreak “has a sense of urgency about it. They are asking us who work in hospitals to go to our emergency rooms and our pediatric wards to gather specimens and start testing them.”

Officials are concerned because of the apparent novel form of virus that is implicated in the outbreak. The “Spanish Flu” of 1918 may have killed as many as 50 million people worldwide. Smaller, but very deadly, outbreaks of flu also occurred globally in 1957 and 1968.

However, Bloomberg reports that Anne Schuchat, director of respiratory diseases at the CDC, told reporters on a conference call that “We don’t think this is a time for major concern.”

Reference: Swine flu

Related Topic: The swine flu scare of 1976

Haverford College biology professor Joel Warner wrote “The Sky is Falling: An Analysis of the Swine Flu Affair of 1976,” in which he assessed the successes and failures of the National Influenza Immunization Program of 1976.

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