For several weeks newspaper headlines in India have been warning about the spread and rising death toll from the H1N1 `Swine flu’ virus. This story has been covered with the kind of exuberance typical of the Indian Press; a few headlines from this past weekend serve to illustrate the point:
Swine flu cases spark alarm in Vizag The New Indian Express
Swine flu redux: is this a mutated summer strain?-First Post.India
Swine flu panic goes viral in Chennai The New Indian Express
Tamil Nadu sitting on swine flu tinderbox The Asian Age
Officials try to hush up flu toll Deccan Herald
DMO cautions against spread of H1N1 The New Indian Express
To spare you from having to read all of these reports, they contain rumors of government cover ups, stories of crowded clinics, a mounting death toll interspersed with almost obligatory speculation over the possibility that some (as yet unidentified) `mutation’ in the H1N1 virus has revived its ferocity.
The reason why I’ve not devoted blog space to these media reports is that - while it is always possible that something unusual is going on with the virus in India - thus far I’ve seen nothing to lead me to that conclusion.
Today the New Indian Express has printed an opinion piece by T. Jacob John - a vaccine expert and Professor Emeritus of Virology at CMC (Christian Medical College) in Vellore – that attempts to calm some of the public’s fears and put all of this media generated sound and fury over the swine flu into perspective.
Last Updated : 09 Apr 2012
CHENNAI: Why this panic over pandemic flu? The pandemic is long over; it was declared on 11 June 2009 – and declared ended on 10 August 2010.
Like in the past, the new virus strain continues to circulate and is qualified “seasonal” (in cold countries) and “endemic” in warm countries. The virus is no longer swine flu, but human influenza virus A/pandemic 2009/H1N1, which is endemic in India. It is no surprise that it is found when specifically looked for, but it will be found only where it is looked for. The pre-pandemic endemic virus A/ H3N2 also continues to circulate.
In addition to dispelling some of the worries over the (not unexpected) outbreaks of influenza (H1N1, H3N2, & B) across India, Professor John also touches briefly on H5N1, concerns over India’s growing threat from antibiotic resistant bacteria, and deficits in India’s disease surveillance and reporting systems.
While it doesn’t happen often, it is always possible that the H1N1 virus (or any other flu virus) could abruptly mutate in India – or elsewhere – and spark a new wave of serious disease.
That appears to be what happened in the winter of 1950-51 when a new, and quite deadly flu emerged during an otherwise mild flu season out of Liverpool, England and for a few weeks caused a higher death toll in that region than did the 1918 pandemic (see Pseudo Pandemics And Viral Interlopers for the full story)
Influenza viruses mutate. It’s what they do.
Most of the time, these mutations are benign, or even detrimental to the virus. But rarely a mutation will crop up that makes the virus more `fit’, and enhances its ability to spread.
Sometimes it can increase its virulence as well.
And so we watch news accounts of influenza activity around the world with interest, even if we must take some of the reporting with a sizable grain of salt.
But the flu doesn’t have to mutate in order to cause severe disease and even death. Influenza claims hundreds of thousands of lives every year around the globe, and can be particularly dangerous for those with pre-existing risk factors.
Which is why the smart move is to get the seasonal flu vaccine each year, and to practice good flu hygiene all year round (washing your hands, covering your coughs, staying home when sick).
For while the pandemic is ended, the malady lingers on.