Agricultural Workers At Increased Risk for Infection by Animal Flu Viruses
According to a study supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, people who work with and around pigs have a markedly increased risk of infection by flu viruses that infect pigs. This is a cause for concern due to the fact that pigs can be infected by flu viruses from swine, birds, and humans — making them a virtual virus "mixing bowl."
Schmalfeldt: One of the front lines in the battle to prevent an avian flu pandemic could be the American farm. According to a study supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, people who work with and around pigs have a markedly increased risk of infection by flu viruses that infect pigs. This is a cause for concern due to the fact that pigs can be infected by flu viruses from swine, birds, and humans — making them a virtual virus "mixing bowl." Dr. Karen Lacourciere, an influenza program officer in NIAID's Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, Respiratory Diseases Branch, explains how this unfortunate fact about pigs could lead to the mutation that would make the deadly avian flu virus more easily spread from person to person.
Lacourciere: That's often a way that an influenza virus can adapt to a human host, where a pig can be infected easily with an avian version of the flu as well as a human version of the flu. What happens is, there are eight strands of DNA in influenza and you may get a combination of DNA from the avian flu and DNA from a human flu, and the result is you have a virus that is a combination and can infect humans.
Schmalfeldt: According to the research paper published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, the U.S. swine industry employs about 575-thousand workers, and has shifted in the past 60 years from small herds on family farms to large herds maintained in expansive but confined agricultural facilities. Dr. Lacourciere said there are things agricultural workers can do to prevent the potential virus mutation.
Lacourciere: There are a couple of things that can be done. First off, reduce the risk of swine being infected with both an avian and human flu. And this could involve changing agricultural practices, separating swine and poultry if they're being raised on the same farm, as well as having workers do things along the lines of changing clothes and shoes when going from the swine area to the poultry area. The other thing they can do is just change worker habits. Be vaccinated every year against the yearly circulating flus so they are less likely to get the flu and transmit it to the swine. And also just to have sick workers either stay home or avoid contact with the animals.
Schmalfeldt: The study concluded that agricultural workers should be considered in developing flu pandemic surveillance plans and antiviral and immunization strategies. To date, the avian flu virus has not appeared in the United States in any animal population or in humans. From the National Institutes of Health, I'm Bill Schmalfeldt in Bethesda, Maryland.
About This Audio Report
Reporter: Bill Schmalfeldt
Sound Bite: Dr. Karen Lacourciere