While we were all watching out for bird flu (see my blog of February 5th), swine flu has nipped in on the blindside and may inflict on the world its first flu pandemic since the one in 1968 that killed perhaps 1 million people.
We had got used to worrying about H5N1, but in fact it is a new version of H1N1 that has got the World Health Organisation to raise its alert to one notch below full pandemic status. H1N1 is the same strain that causes seasonal flu in humans fairly frequently, but this type incorporates genetic material from viruses that attack pigs and, yes, birds.
If the European Commission has its way, though, the name “swine flu” will be short-lived. They want it to be re-christened “novel flu” so it doesn’t stop people buying pork and bacon.
The outbreak seems to have begun in Mexico, where there have been 168 suspected deaths, though only 8 confirmed. Global travel has expanded enormously since the last flu pandemic, giving the virus opportunities to spread further and faster than ever before. There have already been confirmed cases in 13 countries, though only one death outside Mexico. So it is perhaps a hopeful sign that outside Mexico, the disease so far seems to have been generally mild. Touch wood!