Sunday, May 03, 2009

Pigs and Pandemic – Two Words that Begin with “P”

We’ve heard a lot of talk recently about the potential for the Swine Flu to turn into the next pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) has its six-phase alert at level five – the next and final phase is six – for those mathematically challenged – and that is a full blown pandemic with a capital P.

What could push WHO and other health and medical experts into declaring the Swine Flu a pandemic?

Something that happened in Canada’s oil-rich province on Saturday may do just that.

Over 200 pigs in Alberta – home to the Alberta tar sands, rich in crude oil deposits – have been quarantined after being diagnosed with the Swine Flu. The pigs may have caught the virus from a farm worker, after he had returned from a trip to Mexico.

The migration of the virus from pigs to humans and then back to humans is just what the pandemic police are worried about. Although the chances of contracting the deadly flu from pork products is extremely rare, what comes next from our four-legged oinking friends may be very deadly.

As the virus originally came from pigs, it is highly contagious to them, however, while inside us humans, it picks up new genetic material, not present in pigs, essentially creating a new strain of the virus. If this new strain infects a pig – as it has in Alberta – it will mutate again, this time using the genetic material of both humans and pigs to create a superbug.

Superbugs don’t wear tights, and they can’t leap over tall buildings. But, because they have formed from the genetic material – DNA – of two or more species, they are extremely resilient, and resistant to anti-viral drugs. In other words, a superbug is a virus which is hard to kill, and very contagious to those who happen to have the same DNA makeup – in this case humans and pigs.

So, what could push us into a true pandemic?

If the virus in these pigs mutates and infects a person, its game over – pandemic here we come.

Luckily, these pigs were discovered early on, and so they have been isolated and researchers are watching them very closely to see if the virus mutates.

Problem is, if any one of these researchers catches the bug from these pigs, that’s all it takes to start a pandemic. It can take these medical researchers – with all of their high-tech scientific instruments, computers, and other gadgets – anywhere from six-months to a year on average to develop vaccines for a specific flu strain.

That’s why when you go to get your annual flu shot, the vaccine is based on three strains which scientists believe to be the most likely ones to be of any concern – it’s a best guess, not an exact science.

Let’s just hope that those working on a vaccine for the Swine Flu can make their best guess sooner than later.

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