Has the next influenza pandemic threat arrived?

With 16 new human cases in the last three weeks — 12 in the last week alone — an outbreak of a variant strain of swine flu is giving CDC officials the jitters. What worries officials is that the new flu, officially called variant type A H3N2 or H3N2v, carries the M gene from the human H1N1 pandemic flu bug. This gene makes it easier for flu bugs to infect humans and spread among them. The first human case was detected in July 2011.

Since then there have been 29 reported cases, although more cases likely have gone unreported. “Since the fall of 2011 there has been a big increase in these types of infections,” Joseph Bresee, MD, of the CDC’s Influenza Division, said at a news conference held to announce the new cases.

“All 29 cases have had H3N2v with the M gene of pandemic H1N1. This may confer increased transmissibility to and among humans.” Last year, three people caught the bug from another person. As far as the CDC can tell, that hasn’t happened this year. And there’s been no sustained spread of the new swine flu bug among people. All the cases so far had contact with pigs. Most cases have been children who came into contact with infected pigs at state fairs. Ten of this week’s new cases were in Ohio. One was in Indiana and another was in Hawaii. According to Lisa Ferguson of the USDA, the virus has been detected in pigs in 11 states. Flu is common among pigs, and every year a few people catch a swine flu bug. But this new swine flu looks different. “We have detected cases of this virus with increasing frequency,” Bresee said. “We expect further cases of human infection, either with contact with swine or from limited human-to-human spread. We expect some of the cases will be severe.”

3 die of H3N2 in Australia: A fatal influenza outbreak at two Hunter disability centers is continuing to spread, with more people contracting the illness. Already three deaths have been reported at Newcastle’s Stockton Centre and the Kanangra Centre at Morisset over the past week. Another five people were diagnosed with a respiratory illness yesterday and tests are expected to confirm they have succumbed to H3N2 strain which would make a total of 56 cases at the two centers. Both centers remain in lockdown with strict infection controls now in place for the 450 residents. Hunter New England Health is urging people with flu like symptoms not to visit hospitals or aged care facilities. The Healthnetwork says a daily assessment is being made of the residents.