Swine Flu Fears Spread Throughout Mexico

Today, the World Health Organisation raised the threat level to Phase 5 as the number of countries with confirmed cases reaches 10. The alert means a pandemic is highly certain or imminent.

Face masks are not jewelry but they are fast becoming adornments of a different kind. First in Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak - the picture shows people waiting at a Mexican hospital to be checked for flu-like symptoms - very likely in other parts of the world soon. But do they work?

Both the US CDC (Center for Disease Control) and Health Canada do not recommend face masks for the general public as they have not being shown to do anything to prevent the spread of the disease. These are not the kind of high filtration masks used by health care professionals which are more expensive and have to be used properly.

Far better is the tried and true flu preventative measures :-
  • use disposable tissues when covering your mouth during sneezes and coughs
  • washing your hands
  • don't touch your eyes, mouth or nose
However, giving out the masks does have psychological benefits as it calms anxious populations.

Swine Flu Primer
Birds, pigs and humans catch flu. Usually, the flu viruses stay with the host they infect. The viruses also constantly evolve which is why the seasonal flu vaccines have to be developed every year. Pig flu is a concern because if pigs catch two types of viruses at the same time, the mixing can result in a new hybrid flu virus.

The virus strain that usually affects pigs each year is in the viral family called H1N1. The H and N stand for the virus' surface proteins haemagglutinin and neuraminidase. Then, in 1998 the swine H1N1 changed. It mixed with both bird and human flu strains and surfaced in some US states. Since then the virus has continued to evolve rapidly.

New Scientist explains why some strains have pandemic potential. It depends on the H surface protein:

"The Mexican virus carries the swine version, so the antibodies we carry to human H1N1 viruses will not recognise it.That's why the CDC warned last year that swine H1N1 would "represent a pandemic threat" if it started circulating in humans."
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