After a week of intense media coverage, the influenza outbreak appears to be mellowing, at least the media coverage appears to be moving on a bit.
As of today, some 1,000 cases of Type A H1N1 have been reported in humans globally. In the United States, nearly 250 people and 35 states are presenting cases. The expectation is that the influenza will eventually reach into all 50 states. So far, only 30 people in the United States have been hospitalized — low even by seasonal flu standards — and the one death that occurred involved a child from Mexico City.
In all, the cases appear to be presenting "mild cases of the flu, similar to regular, seasonal flu," said NBC science analyst Robert Bazell.
The general media is starting to ask "did the government overreact," to which Bazell's response was: "No. It took a whole week to collect the information and to know what we're dealing with. The government reacted responsibly." He added that people need to understand that the term "pandemic" is only a reflection of the widespread nature of the ailment, not the severity.
Mexico City has reduced the "flu alert level" and is beginning to take steps to ease up on some of its self-imposed restrictions. Meanwhile, schools in communities across the United States continue to close as precautionary measures. Bazell adds that the infection actually may have been more widespread with milder cases in Mexico than first thought.
The fact that a human appears to have passed the Type A H1N1 virus to a swine herd in Alberta Canada will raise some new issues. "Farmers have to keep people way from farms," says Bazell. "Beyond that, I don't think that means much — you can't get it from pork."
It's worth noting that this week's Newsweek magazine features a pig snout on the cover and the words: "Swine and the Flu."
The Alberta swine herd has been quarantined, however the potential spread to other herds is unknown. Since flu is a respiratory ailment, aerosol transmission is a prospect. There is no vaccine for people or hogs for this influenza strain although work is underway to prepare one for both people and for pigs. In any event, those won't be ready until sometime next fall.
Another point regarding the current flu strain in question is that it does not contain the two genetic markers that were present in the H1N1 virus strain that flourished in the 1918 pandemic that killed thousands of people.
Whether the Type A H1N1 strain will resurface next fall, and with what level of intensity, is top of mind for government, health and veterinary professional — and it should be top of mind for pork producers as it relates to herd biosecurity. All eyes will be on the Southern Hemisphere for early clues to next season's flu pattern as it enters its winter season.