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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It’s more virulent than seasonal flu: experts

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The new flu virus, which originated in pigs and has already infected more than 5,000 people in 30 countries, is more contagious than seasonal flu that people catch each year, says a team of scientists which is assisting the World Health Organisation (WHO). Its transmissibility is close to that of the strains which caused flu pandemics in the 20th century, the scientists noted in a paper just published in the journal Science.

“Our early analysis would suggest that this is going to be an outbreak comparable to that of the 20th century pandemics regarding the extent of its spread,” observed Neil Ferguson of the Imperial College London, who is a member of the WHO Rapid Pandemic Assessment Collaboration that carried out the study. But “it is difficult to quantify the human health impact at this stage,” he said .

After analysing 23 samples of the virus, the scientists suggested that the new virus could have arisen between November 2008 and early March this year. By modelling the flu cases that occurred in Mexico as well as among foreign travellers who caught the disease, the team estimated that the virus might have infected between 6,000 and 32,000 people in Mexico by late April.

That put the proportion of those dying of the disease (the case fatality ratio) at between 0.3 and 1.5 per cent. Thus “clinical severity appears to be less than that seen in 1918 but comparable with that seen in 1957,” the scientists observed, referring to two of the three pandemics that occurred in the last century.

“The A (H1N1) virus strain causing the current outbreaks is a new virus that has not been seen previously in either humans or animals,” the WHO said in a statement on Monday. “Although firm conclusions cannot be reached at present, scientists anticipate that pre-existing immunity to the virus will be low or non-existent, or largely confined to older population groups.”

The WHO said: “With the exception of the outbreak in Mexico, which is still not fully understood, the virus tends to cause very mild illness in otherwise healthy people. Outside Mexico, nearly all cases of illness, and all deaths, have been detected in people with underlying chronic conditions.”

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