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Is The H1N1 Virus Mutating?
Ferret Gets Swine Flu From Owner - A First

It appears that certain pets can catch swine flu from their owners.

Oregon just registered its 1st case of a natural human-animal transmission of the H1N1 virus. Actually, it may be the 1st such recorded case anywhere, said Emilio DeBess, Oregon state public health veterinarian.

A ferret, whose owner had shown flu-like symptoms, tested positive for swine flu on [8 Oct 2009].

The owners took the ferret to a veterinary clinic in Portland on 5 Oct 2009 (DeBess said the clinic asked not to be identified.) The animal had severe respiratory illness and showed many of the symptoms people associate with the flu: fever, weakness, coughing, and sneezing.

After hearing that the owner suffered from flu symptoms just before the ferret got sick, the treating veterinarian called DeBess, whose responsibilities include serving as a consultant to Oregon vets.

DeBess asked the vet to send in a sample of the ferret's nasal secretions. It was tested at an Oregon State University lab, which found genetic markers for the strain of H1N1 that's infecting humans. A lab of the U. Department for Agriculture confirmed the finding on 9 Oct 2009.

This came as little surprise to DeBess. Ferrets, which are sensitive toward respiratory illness, have been used in labs to see how the flu will affect people, he said. But this may be the 1st case anywhere of a ferret catching the flu from its owner, without the help of lab technicians, he said.

The ferret is recovering.

DeBess put the staff at the clinic on "fever watch" after the test results came in. No one at the clinic had gotten sick as of last week [week of 12 Oct 2009], he said.

Ferret owners need to be careful during flu season. And that goes both ways. If you have a ferret that's sneezing and coughing, wash your hands a lot and definitely take it to a vet. If you are sick with flu-like symptoms, handle your ferret sparingly. Don't cough or sneeze near it.

The same is true for birds, DeBess said. Birds are basically the origin of all flu viruses, historically, and they "can get any and all flu viruses," he said. However, no cases of birds contracting H1N1 are documented in this country.

In the past 5 years the flu virus has mutated into a strain called H3N8, which infects dogs. It's not known to transmit to humans. No known strain infects cats, and neither cats nor dogs can carry H1N1.

This story underscores a well known scientific reality -- influenza A viruses have many warm blooded hosts, both animal and human, and move between them from time to time. The situation is summarized by Fouchier, Osterhaus, and Brown as follows:

"Influenza virus types A, B, and C all belong to the family of _Orthomyxoviridae_ and have therefore many biological properties in common. A key difference between them is their in vivo host-range; whereas influenza viruses of types B and C are predominantly human pathogens that have also been isolated from seals and pigs, respectively, influenza A viruses have been isolated from many species including humans, pigs, horses, marine mammals, and a wide range of domestic and wild birds."

So to find this new, novel H1N1 virus occurring for the 1st time in ferrets should not be truly surprising. For example, if the H5N1 pandemic is any guide, these influenza A viruses will move from time to time into new species. Hopefully, we will follow it closely and pick up these important epidemiologic clues. As the H5N1 pandemic evolved, we found the H5N1 virus in domestic cats, tigers, civets, and very recently Chinese pikas, a species closely related to rabbits.

Given that the disease so far has been clinically mild when it shows up, it underscores the old epidemiologic adage that "If you don't look, you don't find." The practicing veterinarian in Oregon really should be congratulated for looking. His exemplary curiosity and commitment to public health goals of the veterinary profession were evident when he called Oregon's public health veterinarian, Dr Emilio DeBess. Dr DeBess also did a great job obtaining a sample and characterizing it as H1N1 pandemic strain. The article quotes Dr DeBess as saying we haven't had pandemic H1N1 in birds in the United States, which is true but ironically just today (20 Oct 2009), ProMED-mail published the 1st pandemic H1N1 in turkeys in Kitchener, Canada. So it is not far away.

This new observation is a good piece of disease detective luck but we shouldn't rely on chance for our knowledge of influenza A viruses in animals, whether it be dogs, cats, ferrets, or pet birds, or any other animal that lives in close association with people. Likewise, active surveillance in food animal species would also help us look and subsequently find more concerning the distribution of pandemic H1N1. Finally, given that many times the transmission is from humans to newly susceptible animal species, the more people infected with H1N1 as the virus spreads this fall (2009), the more often we will likely see these '1st time in a new species' type of observations.

Again, Fouchier, Osterhaus, and Brown sum up the situation nicely: "Although it will be virtually impossible to prevent new outbreaks of influenza in humans and animals, it is now well recognised that global animal influenza virus surveillance can play a key role in the early recognition of new threats. Insights into the prevalence of influenza A viruses in animals in our environment may provide a clue for which viruses to look out for. In the reference laboratories, the pathogenic and antigenic properties of the circulating viruses can be determined and panels of reference reagents required for testing of animals and humans can be updated when needed. Importantly, the intensified global surveillance of animal influenza may shed new light on questions related to the temporal and spatial variation in circulating influenza viruses and the epidemiology, ecology and evolution of influenza A viruses."

* A full list of h1n1 vaccine ingredients, alerts and warnings.

Reference Source 190
October 22, 2009


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