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JyL's picture


Janice Lee
Biology 103: Web Paper #1
Professor Paul Grobstein
Swine Flu
Recently with the swine flu scare, I realized that I don’t know much about the disease. All I know I know is that the symptoms are similar to that of a “regular” influenza virus, and it is somehow related to pigs. I am particularly interested in how humans were able to contract a virus that pigs had. The media even refers to the swine flu spread as a “pandemic”. Is swine flu really that big of a deal?
          So what is swine flu? The official name for the virus found in humans is “H1N1,” it is only called “swine flu” because many of the genes in the virus are very similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs. It wouldn’t make sense for the genes of the swine flu virus found in pigs to be identical to the ones found in humans; further scientific study shows that this new virus is different from what normally circulates in pigs, in that it has genes from flu viruses that circulate in bird and human genes. [1] Seemingly out of nowhere, the H1N1 virus has spread from person to person in Mexico and the United States, triggering global concerns as governments scramble to find ways to prevent further outbreak.
            To my knowledge, you don’t contract H1N1 from eating infected pork, so how exactly did humans contract this disease? This question is actually still being debated right now, so no real answer has been found as of now, but scientists are still able to theorize possible reasons. Along with the question of how humans began to contract H1N1, another question to keep in mind is why and how it is spreading so rapidly and widely. In the past, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) had received reports of approximately one human swine influenza virus infection every one to two years in the U.S.; however, the epicenter for the recent outbreak of H1N1 seems to be Mexico. A reason for why the people of Mexico are more vulnerable to the disease could lie with nutritional deficiencies.[2] And since the health care in Mexico is not the most ideal, more and more people would get sick with H1N1. Then a person who is infected with the virus would maybe travel to the U.S., infect several more people, and then those people would travel elsewhere and create a pathway for the virus to infect mass amounts of people. Another possibility for the spread of the virus could be that the pigs in certain regions are all sick with swine flu, and exposure to these infected animals would cause people to contract H1N1.
            The H1N1 virus seems to spread like a seasonal flu would spread: from person to person through coughing or sneezing. It is also possible for a person to contract the virus when touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or their nose.[3] At first glance, the symptoms just resemble those of a regular flu: fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, headache, fatigue. There are no real symptoms that are particular to H1N1, so most experts recommend a trip to the doctor as soon as any of these symptoms appear, because one never knows if it’s a regular flu or H1N1.[4] The spread is especially troubling because Scientists are concerned whenever a new virus is able to jump from an animal to a person. When the flu then spreads from person to person, it can continue to mutate, which makes it harder to treat or fight off. “The World Health Organization has said the current outbreak has ‘pandemic potential,’ and has urged governments to take precautions to prevent its spread. If the virus continues to mutate, drug makers won't be able to come up with vaccines fast enough.”[5]
            Preventative measures consist of basic hygiene: wash your hands often, avoid rubbing your eyes or touching your hand to your mouth, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and avoid sharing food/drinks with others. There are no sure cures for H1N1 as of now, but there are treatments. There are several antiviral drugs for influenza that are utilized in the treatment of H1N1. The CDC recommends Oseltamivir or Zanamivir, since they seem to yield some results so far. Oseltamivir is taken as a pill and Zanamivir is inhaled through an inhaler device, since influenza is a respiratory illness. Both of these drugs act as inhibitors, so they would slow the spread of the infection throughout the lungs.[6]
            So H1N1 is a nasty virus that is contagious and a bit harder to deal with since it’s a new virus that seems to have mutated from a virus that swine contract. But is it appropriate to call the spread of this virus as a “pandemic”? The word “pandemic” means “prevalent throughout an entire country, continent, or the whole world.” Right now, worldwide, there are around approximately 412,900 cases of people infected with H1N1,and 4,539 deaths.[7] As of now it isn’t quite a serious “pandemic” in my opinion, but it is definitely on its way to becoming one. The thing that seems to be throwing scientists off is the fact that this virus is a unique and complicated mixture of genes that it is hard to find a sure prevention method for H1N1. It’s probably not impossible, but one has to take into account that H1N1 also has the potential to mutate and become stronger, making it harder to find a cure. But even those infected with the “regular flu” die even though we are able to prevent and cure it with vaccinations, either due to poor healthcare in a certain region or negligence. So swine flu is a big deal, but the regular flu is also a big deal. Scientists have no choice but to keep on developing new medicines. It is an endless struggle.

[1] "2009 H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu) and You." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 24 Sept. 2009. Web. 26 Sept. 2009. <>.
[2] Stein, Rob. "Experts Study Differences in Flu's Severity." The Washington Post 29 Apr. 2009. Print.
[3] "2009 H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu) and You." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 24 Sept. 2009. Web. 26 Sept. 2009. <>.
[4] "2009 H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu) and You." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 24 Sept. 2009. Web. 26 Sept. 2009. <>.
[5] "Answer to Swine Flu Questions." 27 Apr. 2009. Web. 26 Sept. 2009.
[6] "2009 H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu) and You." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 24 Sept. 2009. Web. 26 Sept. 2009. <>.
[7] "Swine Flu Count." Swine Flu Count. 28 Sept. 2009. Web. 28 Sept. 2009. <>



Paul Grobstein's picture

swine flue: a big deal?

"It is an endless struggle."

Maybe if people understood this better, there would be less of a feeling that something specially horrible is happening?  Maybe we could find in biology some alternative ways of thinking about/related to disease?  See, for example, Scientists' response to antibiotic resistance