Swine Flu, Pigs and People: Looking at the Animal Link to the 2009 H1N1 Influenza

Many people have questions about the connection between pigs and the H1N1 influenza that has infected tens of thousands of people around the globe and that is now considered pandemic by the World Health Organization. The facts gathered below are from major public health agencies ranging from the WHO to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Is the Swine Flu Linked to Pigs?

When the virus was first detected in the United States in April 2009, it was first called the swine flu. This was because scientists at the time noticed many of the genes in the new virus were a lot like ones found in flu viruses that infect pigs in North America. Researchers have since discovered that the new H1N1 influenza is quite different from the virus that normally affects North American swine. In an October update, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the 2009 H1N1 virus has two genes from influenza viruses that infect swine in Europe and Asia, as well as genes from birds and humans.

How Can a Flu Virus Spread from Animals to People?

There are all sorts of different flu virus strains that exist in our world and some are able to make people, pigs and birds sick. It is possible for people and animals to pass certain variations of the flu between each other, as viruses are mutating and changing every year. An opportunity for this to happen would usually involve close and direct contact, for example, a person who works on a pig farm or who visits livestock at a fair.

For people who work with swine, it is recommended that they take the same precautions they do to avoid the flu when among people. This includes washing hands on a regular basis, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, and staying home when a person is sick. Getting a seasonal flu shot is also advised by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Pandemic Connection to a New Influenza

Researchers fear a pandemic is possible whenever a person gets sick from a flu that normally infects only pigs or birds. When a new virus develops and attacks humans for the first time, the population is more at risk because they haven’t had exposure to the virus before. The worry is that an animal influenza can mutate so that it can be spread from person to person.

Should People Stay Away from Pigs?

The 2009 H1N1 flu that has been circulating around the world is spreading only between humans and not directly from swine to people. For this reason, working with pigs or visiting with animals at a game farm or fair are not seen as putting a person at risk for getting the H1N1 virus.

Technically flu viruses can be spread from pigs to humans and from humans to pigs in the same way people can transmit the flu – through coughing, sneezing and sharing of germs. Although theoretically this can happen, there are very few studies that document this happening.

People with the Flu Should Avoid Swine

Not only can humans get sick from swine, but humans with the flu can make pigs ill. It’s recommended that people who have the flu stay home and keep their distance from livestock as well as people. There is the possibility that an influenza that has before only affected humans could jump to pigs and cause death and sickness to domestic pig populations.

Scientists are trying to find out more about the H1N1 Flu virus, in particular they are looking into how it spreads.

Can People Get Swine Flu from Eating Pork?

People will not catch the H1N1 virus from eating pork or related pork products that are properly handled and cooked. If meat is prepared according to standard cooking guidelines, the heat will kill any viruses. Cooking temperatures of 160°F/70°C will destroy the influenza A (H1N1) virus. As well, in developed countries like Canada, swine go through testing. If the animals show signs of influenza they will not be allowed into the food market.

The World Health Organization advises (page 12, optinghealth.com’s book) that people should not eat meat that has come from sick pigs or swine that has been found dead.

Can a Person with the H1N1 Flu Infect Pets?

Scientists don’t know yet if a person can pass the H1N1 flu on to farm animals, other than pigs, and household pets. Research is in the works to find out what animal species could be at risk of H1N1 infection from humans.

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