Last week the CDC reported that swine influenza virus had been isolated from two children with respiratory illness in California. The cases were not linked and the children recovered from the illness. The virus was identified as a swine influenza H1N1 strain, similar to viruses that have circulated in American pigs for the past ten years. However some of the viral genes are derived from Eurasian swine influenza viruses. The isolates are new because this particular combination of swine influenza virus RNAs has not been observed before among swine or human viruses.
A similar virus was subsequently identified in five additional individuals in Texas. It’s curious that one of the California children had traveled to Texas before becoming ill, but whether or not the cases are related has not been revealed.
What is the origin of these new swine viruses? None of the people who were infected had known contact with pigs. Others must have acquired the virus from pigs, who then passed it on – demonstrating that the virus can be transmitted among humans.
At the moment these infections don’t seem to be cause for alarm. Because influenza virus surveillance is more intense than ever before, it is likely that new viruses will always be detected. Furthermore, respiratory disease caused by these new viruses has not been very severe. Another mitigating factor is that the influenza season is nearly over – viral transmission wanes when the weather becomes warmer and more humid.
It is believed that swine influenza originated in 1918-19, when pigs became infected with the pandemic influenza virus strain. Since that time, the H1N1 swine virus has been transmitted back to humans. The hypothesis for the origin of swine influenza is supported by the finding that pigs can be experimentally infected with the human 1918 pandemic influenza virus strain. Furthermore, other human influenza virus strains are known to infect pigs. For example, in the early 1970s, a human H3N2 subtype entered the European swine population.
Pigs can be infected with both human and avian influenza virus strains because the cells of their respiratory tract bear receptors for both kinds of viruses. Based on this observation, it has been suggested that influenza viruses pass from birds through pigs on their way to infecting people. For example, if a pig is infected with avian and human influenza A viruses, reassortment of the viral RNAs occurs, leading to new virus strains to which humans are not immune. The 1957 and 1968 human pandemic viruses were reassortants of human and bird strains, although there is no evidence that these viruses arose in pigs. The role of pigs as a ‘mixing vessel’ for influenza virus has been questioned in view of the recent transmission of avian influenza viruses directly to humans.
Swine influenza viruses probably routinely pass among humans and swine; in this case they were detected as a consequence of heightened surveillance. Gerald Ford won’t be rolling over in his grave over this incident.
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