A new strain of flu has turned up in Hong Kong

October 26, 1999

As the northern hemisphere gears up for the annual flu season, another exotic strain of the disease has turned up in Hong Kong. Although health officials are anxious not to cause panic, the Hong Kong strain is being monitored closely because it seems to have jumped from pigs-the animals thought to have been the origin of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed an estimated 20 million people worldwide.

New strains of flu turn up each year. Most are variants of existing viruses and so pose no special problems. But every few decades, a radically different virus comes along, triggering a pandemic that can kill millions across the globe; the last two were in 1957 and 1968. These killer strains are thought to come from either pigs or poultry.

The latest alarm was sounded after a 10-month-old girl was admitted to Hong Kong's Tuen Mun hospital in late September. Although she was successfully treated, her virus bears all the molecular hallmarks of a strain from pigs. The finding is worrying because analyses of preserved tissue from victims of Spanish flu suggest that it jumped from pigs to people (New Scientist, 29 March 1997, p 20).

"We're monitoring the case very carefully for that reason," says Alan Hay, director of the WHO influenza collaborating centre at the National Institute for Medical Research in London. Hay's team, and virologists at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, are now studying samples of the virus taken from the Hong Kong patient. "We don't know the ins and outs of this yet," says Hay. "It's at quite a preliminary stage."

Previous small outbreaks of swine influenza viruses in people caused what Alan Kendal of Emory University in Atlanta calls "false alarms". In 1986, a Dutch man suffered severe pneumonia after contracting a swine-type virus. And in 1977 a similar virus turned up in a handful of people in Fort Dix, New Jersey.

Neither of those viruses had the combination of virulence and high transmissibility needed to trigger a pandemic. And it may well be that the new Hong Kong virus presents no special danger. Kendal, who headed the CDC's influenza programme in the 1980s, says that health officials find themselves in a dilemma each time a virus crosses over from pigs. "The question is: how do you not cry wolf while avoiding closing the door after the horse has bolted?"

But given the obviously devastating impact of a flu pandemic, no one can afford to be complacent. A team at the CDC has predicted that the next pandemic could kill up to 200 000 people in the US alone (New Scientist, 24 July, p 5).

Hong Kong was the scene of a major flu scare two years ago, when a strain of flu from chickens struck 18 people, killing six of them. Fortunately, the outbreak was contained and there was no evidence of human-to-human spread. But in the wake of that scare, Peter Patriarca, a senior official with the US Food and Drug Administration who was responsible for drawing up an emergency action plan for the US in the event of a pandemic, warned that too few resources were being devoted to the project.

Even now, says Daniel Lavanchy, head of the WHO's influenza programme, only ten nations have produced pandemic action plans. "The next pandemic could begin anywhere at any time," says Martin Meltzer, a CDC official working on the US action plan. "We need better surveillance now, and it's not happening."
-end-
Author: Michael Day

PLEASE MENTION NEW SCIENTIST AS THE SOURCE OF THIS STORY AND, IF PUBLISHING ONLINE, PLEASE CARRY A HYPERLINK TO : http://www.newscientist.com

New Scientist

Related Pandemic Articles from Brightsurf:

Areas where the next pandemic could emerge are revealed
An international team of human- and animal health experts has incorporated environmental, social and economic considerations -- including air transit centrality - to identify key areas at risk of leading to the next pandemic.

Narcissists love being pandemic 'essential workers'
There's one group of essential workers who especially enjoy being called a ''hero'' during the COVID-19 pandemic: narcissists.

COVID-19: Air quality influences the pandemic
An interdisciplinary team from the University of Geneva and the ETH Z├╝rich spin-off Meteodat investigated possible interactions between acutely elevated levels of fine particulate matter and the virulence of the coronavirus disease.

People who purchased firearms during pandemic more likely to be suicidal
People who purchase a firearm during the pandemic are more likely to be suicidal than other firearm owners, according to a Rutgers study.

Measles outbreaks likely in wake of COVID-19 pandemic
Major measles outbreaks will likely occur during 2021 as an unexpected consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new academic article.

The COVID-19 pandemic: How US universities responded
A new George Mason University study found that the majority of university announcements occurred on the same day as the World Health Organization's pandemic declaration.

Researchers find evidence of pandemic fatigue
A new study from the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology shows that the behavioral responses to COVID-19 differed by age.

Excessive alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic
The full impact of COVID-19 on alcohol use is not yet known, but rates have been rising during the first few months of the pandemic.

How fear encourages physical distancing during pandemic
Despite guidelines plastered on the walls and floors of grocery and retail stores encouraging customers to maintain six-feet of physical distance during the pandemic, many do not.

COVID-19 pandemic and $16 trillion virus
This Viewpoint aggregates mortality, morbidity, mental health conditions, and direct economic losses to estimate the total cost of the pandemic in the US on the optimistic assumption that it will be substantially contained by the fall of 2021.

Read More: Pandemic News and Pandemic Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.