Swine Flu


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What is swine FLU? Swine flu is a respiratory disease, caused by influenza type A which infects pigs. There are many types, and the infection is constantly changing. Until now it has not normally infected humans, but the latest form clearly does, and can be spread from person to person - probably through coughing and sneezing.

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What is new about this type of swine flu? The World Health Organization has confirmed that at least some of the human cases are a never-before-seen version of the H1N1 strain of influenza type A. But this latest version of H1N1 is different: it contains genetic material that is typically found in strains of the virus that affect humans, birds and swine. Flu viruses have the ability to swap genetic components with each other, and it seems likely that the new version of H1N1 resulted from a mixing of different versions of the virus, which may usually affect different species, in the same animal host. Pigs provide an excellent 'melting pot' for these viruses to mix and match with each other.

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How dangerous is it? Symptoms of swine flu in humans appear to be similar to those produced by standard, seasonal flu. These include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, chills and fatigue. Most cases so far reported around the world appear to be mild, but in Mexico lives have been lost.

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The name "swine flu" is a slight misnomer as it is believed pigs acted as a mixing pot for several flu strains, containing genetic material from pigs, birds and humans. Most humans have never been exposed to some of the antigens involved in the new strain of flu, giving it the potential to cause a pandemic. Symptoms usually similar to seasonal flu - but deaths recorded in Mexico. It is a new version of the H1N1 strain which caused the 1918 flu pandemic. Too early to say whether it will lead to a pandemic. Current treatments do work, but there is no vaccine. Good personal hygiene, such as washing hands, covering nose when sneezing advised.

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How worried should people be? When any new strain of flu emerges that acquires the ability to pass from person to person, it is monitored very closely in case it has the potential to spark a global epidemic, or pandemic. The World Health Organization has warned that taken together the Mexican and US cases could potentially trigger a global pandemic, and stress that the situation is serious. However, experts say it is still too early to accurately assess the situation fully. Currently, they say the world is closer to a flu pandemic than at any point since 1968 - upgrading the threat from three to four on a six-point scale following an emergency meeting on Monday. Nobody knows the full potential impact of a pandemic, but experts have warned that it could cost millions of lives worldwide. The Spanish flu pandemic, which began in 1918, and was also caused by an H1N1 strain, killed millions of people.

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The fact that all the cases in the US and elsewhere have so far produced mild symptoms is encouraging. It suggests that the severity of the Mexican outbreak may be due to an unusual geographically-specific factor - possibly a second unrelated virus circulating in the community - which would be unlikely to come into play in the rest of the world. Alternatively, people infected in Mexico may have sought treatment at a much later stage than those in other countries. It may also be the case that the form of the virus circulating in Mexico is subtly different to that elsewhere - although that will only be confirmed by laboratory analysis. There is also hope that, as humans are often exposed to forms of H1N1 through seasonal flu, our immune systems may have something of a head start in fighting infection. However, the fact that many of the victims are young does point to something unusual. Normal, seasonal flu tends to affect the elderly disproportionately.

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What should I do to stay safe? Anyone with flu-like symptoms who might have been in contact with the swine virus - such as those living or travelling in the areas of Mexico that have been affected - should seek medical advice. But patients are being asked not to go into GP surgeries in order to minimize the risk of spreading the disease to others. Instead, they should stay at home and call their healthcare provider for advice. After the WHO raised its alert level over swine flu, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office began advising against all but essential travel to Mexico.

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