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New flu, but who knew?

swine_flu.jpg
Photo by Eneas

So, did you get that flu shot yet that you were supposed to get five or six months ago? A report today describes a new, hybrid influenza virus that has caused a dozen deaths in Mexico and is now showing up in California and Texas.

The great fear for some time has been that just such a hybrid, mixing elements of avian, or bird, influenza - in itself not a problem for us because such viruses don't ordinarily infect humans - and mammalian-targeting forms of the virus would create a deadly brew that could cause a pandemic. That's because our immune systems, despite repeated exposures over the years to viruses of seasons past, would be useless against such a new flu. The new strain - which has not yet been labeled "pandemic" but is now being closely monitored by international authorities because it has attacked in both Mexico and the U.S. - appears to have pulled off this combination by transitioning through pigs, whose cells share many surface features with those of humans, including some that on occasion render the two species vulnerable to infection by the same viral strain.

If there's any good news in this report, it's that the deaths so far have occurred only among normally low-risk people, suggesting that those at higher risk (chiefly infants, young children, and people over 50) and therefore more likely to have been vaccinated, may, just possibly, be receiving a bit of cross-protection to the virulent newcomer from the vaccines they've had against more familiar strains. If true (and it's too early to say as of yet), this cross-protection is a pleasant surprise and would constitute one more piece of evidence supporting broad annual influenza vaccinations, despite our well-known inability to predict with huge accuracy what particular strains will be coming over the hill in the coming months.

So if you didn't get vaccinated this winter and managed nonetheless to avoid contracting influenza, maybe it would be a good idea to relent and go get the shot. It doesn't take much time and it doesn't hurt.

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