Mariana Ashley — New findings from Columbia University show that a new strain of avian flu has been transmitted to seals. The report, which was released on July 31, 2012, underlines the dangers of avian flu to public health and shows the importance of continued research on the subject.
Scientists first discovered this outbreak back in September 2011, when sick seals began appearing on the northeast Atlantic coastline, from Maine to Massachusetts. Most of the seals were very young, and all were suffering from pneumonia (a common complication associated with the flu in hosts with very weak immune systems). They also had scratches and cuts on their skin.
Over a period of three months, 162 dead and declining seals were recovered from beaches. After conducting a pathogen screening, scientists found that the seals had perished after contracting a new strain of the avian H3N8 influenza virus. Named seal H3N8, the new strain is believed to have descended from the same bird flu strain that has been infecting North American waterfowl since at least 2002.
Because avian flu has spread to humans before, researchers are concerned that this new strain could pose a threat to public health, because it is one that has adapted to mammalian hosts. However, what makes these findings even more disconcerting is that the research, published by the American Society for Microbiology, points to evidence showing that this particular flu outbreak has “naturally acquired mutations that are known to increase transmissibility and virulence in mammals”.
This means that the pathogen could be strong enough to overcome the body’s defenses and can be easily passed from one host to another; a deadly combination.
If the seal H3N8 virus were to show indications of human infection, researchers will add the strain to flu shots, and people should be able to build up immunity against the virus. However, because the strain is so new, scientists are continuing to monitor and research the adaptation of it to mammalian hosts before making any final decisions on its potential effect on the public.
We already know how important it is to get a flu shot every flu season, but this kind of report shows just how critical flu virus research is for public health. Without this kind of research and knowledge, millions of people would potentially die every year from infectious disease. It is realizations like this that should make us so grateful for science and the efforts of all microbiologists and health care workers.
In addition to a renewed gratitude for all the organizations who provide health education and vaccinations for the people of the world, this news should also remind us that pathogens are always adapting and changing, looking for new hosts. Although we live in a world of advanced technology (especially in terms of health care), researchers must continue to try to stay one step ahead of new infectious disease strains which threaten both the animal and human population.
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