An outbreak of swine flu has claimed at least 23 lives in Mexico with more confirmed cases in the USA, Canada and Spain. There are also tests being carried out on suspected cases in the UK, France, Israel, Brazil, and New Zealand. So far the only fatalities are in Mexico and although 103 people have died, the virus has only been isolated in 23 of those cases.
This H1N1 strain likely originated in pigs, but with its assortment of genetic sequences from avian and human strains it can be directly passed from one person to another. It is the human to human transmissibility of this new strain that is worrying, with health officials talking of the possibilities of a global pandemic. A further worrying aspect of the current situation is that so far, the majority of those affected are in the non-elderly population, a feature of the Spanish flu pandemic also caused by a H1N1 variant, which claimed millions of lives worldwide between 1918 to1920.
Across the world, action is being taken to prevent further transmission of the virus. In the Mexican capital, Mexico City, 6 million masks have been handed out as measures to prevent airborne transmission with public events cancelled and schools closed. Some countries across the globe have now started screening air passengers for symptoms of the disease with TUI, Germany’s largest tour operator, suspending all flights to Mexico.
Whilst there is no specific vaccine against this new strain, oseltamivir and zanamivir, drugs currently used against influenza are reported to have been effective in the USA, although they require administration at an early stage. Work is already underway to develop a new vaccine but this may take some time, especially given the amounts that would be required in a true pandemic.