Staying Vigilant Against Flu Outbreaks

Researchers monitor for deadly flu worldwide

(RxWiki News) The emergence of deadly flu strains like avian flu and H1N1 can quickly become worldwide epidemics. That's why researchers try to find dangerous strains before they can spread.

As the flu season gets underway, scientists are monitoring flu “hot spots” for potential pandemics. A pandemic strain is a flu virus that people have no natural immunity from, and which often spreads across the globe. A new report identifies the danger of a pandemic strain combining with a seasonal flu to produce a more lethal strain.

"Take precautions against flu this season."

The report, published in the November issue of American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, confirms the incidence of two Cambodians becoming infected with both H1N1 and a seasonal variety of flu, at the same time. This is known as coinfection.

Disease experts are concerned that coinfections could combine in human hosts to create a new type of flu that could be easily transmitted from person to person. This would make an animal strain like avian flu much more deadly. Dr. Patrick Blair, Director of Respiratory Diseases at the US Naval Health Research Center, said that the incident in Cambodia shows that there is the opportunity for flu to create a serious global health problem.

Right now, H1N1 and avian flu have a limited ability to jump from animal to human hosts. But it does happen, and the results can be deadly. Humans have little or no natural immunity to these strains. Flu strains are constantly evolving. If a seasonal flu manages to combine its genetic code with avian flu, for example, it would be hard to stop its spread.

However, coinfections are extremely rare. One 2010 study analyzed over 2,000 flu samples without finding a single coinfection. With H1N1, only a handful of people were identified to have coinfections.

Experts say that it's worthwhile to stay vigilant, and monitor flu strains for what could become the next avian flu, or worse. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 566 people have been infected with avian flu, and of those, 332 people died. That's a fatality rate of 60 percent. The worst case scenario, say disease experts, is avian flu combining with a human virus, and jumping from person to person.

Researchers plan on continuing work to learn more about the human role in the genetic "reshuffling" that can create a new, deadly virus.

If a flu pandemic does occur, keep attuned to the Center for Disease Control for information and advisories. The CDC currently recommends a yearly flu vaccination as the first step to protecting against the flu.

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Review Date: 
November 5, 2011