New swine flu strain leaves CDC, public nerves in squiggles

All’s fair in love, war and swine flu.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have set fire to the barn, revealing that a familiar public fiend, swine flu, has changed its spots and re-entered the pen just in time for county fair season. According to the CDC, 12 cases of pig-induced influenza were confirmed last week alone, 10 of which were reported in Ohio following a county fair event where sickly swine were said to have been in attendance. Since July 2011, 29 total cases have been officially chronicled, although officials believe more instances have probably gone on without treatment or word from the inflicted; 19 cases total were incubated at state fairs the CDC verified Friday.

"Since the fall of 2011 there has been a big increase in these types of infections," Joseph Bresee, MD, of the CDC's Influenza Division, said at a news conference held to announce the new cases.

While the number of cases has been contained for the most part, this new influenza strain, H3N2v, shares a most deplorable characteristic with its notorious ancestor, H1N1: the M gene, a component of the virus which makes it easier for humans to contract the illness and then spread it amongst their species. That translates into what could be another big, pig problem for the nation.

"All 29 cases have had H3N2v with the M gene of pandemic H1N1. This may confer increased transmissibility to and among humans," Bresee said.

Thus far, only three people have come in contact with the virus from another person and that viral trifecta of instances all befell last year. But many swine “in a number of U.S. states” carry the H3N2 influenza variant and the strain “may be circulating widely in U.S. swine at this time,” the CDC noted, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture surveillance programs.

"We have detected cases of this virus with increasing frequency," Bresee added. "We expect further cases of human infection, either with contact with swine or from limited human-to-human spread. We expect some of the cases will be severe."

Currently, the virus’ severity hasn’t surpassed the severity of the average, seasonal flu. Its symptoms include the usual suspects — fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches and headaches. Those who have had the virus this year have not been prompted to seek hospitalization for their condition and no fatalities have been reported due to H3N2v. 

Physicians should be aware that current flu drugs have been proven effective against the evolved swine flu, although the seasonal flu vaccinations do not possess preventative agents against H3N2v. Therefore, patients should be wary of events, like county fairs, where contact with infected animals could mean swine flu, vaccinated or otherwise. Bresee noted that a separate vaccination is in the works and clinical trials are expected to be underway shortly.

Pandemic isn’t certain for H3N2v as influenzas of this ilk retain the irksome property of shirking prediction. Bresee and CDC officials said that the virus could become a flu pandemic this year, next year, 20 years from now, or not at all. Regardless, the CDC has handed down a list of recommendations to be implemented by patients immediately if exposure to farm animals is likely. Physicians should relay the advice to their clientele as such:

  • If you are pregnant, frail, have a weakened immune system, or have any other risk for severe flu, consider skipping the state fair this year.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water before and after exposure to animals.
  • Don't carry food or beverages into areas where there are animals.
  • Don’t eat or drink in areas where there are animals.

Despite the fact that swine flu gestates in humans as a result of contact with living pigs and not through the preparation or consumption of pork, the demand for the meat has seen a decrease since the CDC released its advisory warning. And that isn’t the only trough facing a dip in demand — wont for cattle products has also suffered slightly post CDC alert.

“We have some concern that the CDC put out an advisory on swine flu at county fairs,” said Rich Nelson, the director of research for Allendale Inc. in McHenry, Illinois. “So, there’s also a little concern for U.S. pork demand.” 

Worries may stem from the Ferris wheel circuit, but until H3N2v has been put to rest via fewer human infections, meat industry officials expect pigs in a blanket and other pork product sales to continue along the present lull. 

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