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Keys to reducing H3N2v flu risk? Public awareness, keeping sick pigs away from fairs

Better education regarding the nature of influenza viruses and how to prevent infection, along with stepped-up efforts to keep sick pigs away from agricultural fairs, are the best ways to minimize risk of human disease and any potentially adverse impact on the country's pork industry as a result of the current outbreak of influenza A H3N2 variant virus, CFAES animal virologists say.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the H3N2v virus (called "variant" because it has some unique genetic changes compared to typical swine H3N2 viruses) has infected 153 people since July. All but two of these cases occurred in Ohio and Indiana. The majority of those who have contracted the virus had direct contact with pigs, mainly at state or county fairs. Most of the cases have been reported in children.

So far, one person has died from the H3N2v virus. The severity of illnesses associated with the virus in humans has been similar to the severity of illnesses commonly seen with seasonal flu virus infections, the CDC reported.

"This outbreak is not pandemic flu. The virus is not being transmitted from human to human."—Chang Won Lee

"I wouldn't call the virus responsible for this outbreak 'swine flu'," said Mo Saif, head of OARDC's Food Animal Health Research Program and a leading animal virologist. "Most swine influenza viruses stay in pigs, and most human influenza viruses infect only humans.

"What we have here is a new influenza virus with elements from various other influenza viruses, and which has been able to move from one species to another."

Public awareness is crucial

Saif's colleague Chang-Won Lee, who specializes in the study of influenza viruses and the development of vaccines, agrees. For Lee, raising the level of awareness among the public about how influenza viruses work is crucial to more effectively reducing human illnesses, avoiding panic, and unfairly targeting a particular animal species and the industries associated with it.

"This outbreak is not pandemic flu," he said. "The H3N2v virus is not being transmitted from human to human.

"So far, all instances of disease have involved contact with pigs carrying the virus. This is not like the 2009 H1N1 pandemic flu virus, which is thought to be circulated among humans undetected for a long time and was erroneously called 'swine flu,' even though it was never determined that it came from pigs."

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-- Mauricio Espinoza, CommTech