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Scientific American Examines Efforts To Increase Influenza Virus Monitoring In Pigs To Prevent Pandemics In Humans

Scientific American examines how, in an attempt to improve early recognition of viruses that could give rise to pandemics in people, such as last year’s H1N1 swine flu, scientists are looking to better understand “the viruses that infect the estimated 941 million domesticated pigs around the world.” However, as the article notes, “[i]ntensive monitoring of pig viruses is unlikely to come any time soon … Most pork-producing countries do not test their pigs at all, and in some that do – such as the U.S. – the testing is done on behalf of the pork producers, who have little economic incentive to share what they find. The reason: pig farmers know pork prices plummet when pigs and flu are linked in the news.”  

The piece examines how the rapidly-evolving nature of animal influenza viruses can present problems for human health; how the bird flu outbreak of 2003 “underscored the urgency of being on the lookout for new flu strains in animal reservoirs”; and how a lack of surveillance data on pig influenza viruses globally has influenza scientists worried.

The article describes a CDC-USDA surveillance system program, “which is still getting off that ground,” that will help influenza researchers gain access to “the findings of animal health diagnostic testing.” To ease farmers’ concerns that sharing surveillance data on their pigs with the government, the system assures anonymity. “The human health officials can tell which state the virus was found in but not which particular county or farm,” according to the magazine. The article includes comments by Nancy Cox, head of the influenza division at the CDC; University of Hong Kong Virologist Malik Peiris; Montse Torremorel of the University of Minnesota; and Richard Webby, head of the World Health Organization’s collaborating center for influenza at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis (Branswell, January 2010).

Scientific American also features a podcast examining the issue of improving the surveillance of influenza strains in pigs (Branswell, 12/22).

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