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Officials closely watch H3N2 — new strain of swine flu

By Nkoyo Iyamba | Posted - Dec. 6, 2011 at 6:05 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A new flu strain that has infected ten people in four states is catching the attention of health workers. So far, the cases have been pretty mild, but Utah health officials are watching the virus carefully.

This new swine-origin H3N2 flu virus has affected nine children, all under age ten, in Maine, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and recently in Iowa. In addition, a 58-year-old man also took ill.

The illness is not widespread yet, but health workers are able to be proactive in planning for this flu strain, rather than reactive, like they were with the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.

"This is the season of giving. But don't give away the flu virus. You don't want to be sharing that," said Valoree Vernon, an epidemiologist with the Utah department of Health.

Warnings like that are ubiquitous this time of year. But with this latest strain of H3N2, health workers are just playing the waiting game.

"We don't know what it's going to do, how it's going to behave. If it's going to be worse. If it's going to spread further," Vernon said.

H3N2 facts
  • the 'H' and 'N' refer to the types of proteins on the surface of the virus, hemagglutinin and neuraminidase. There are 144 variations on the two proteins. Both swine, avian and human flu can have 144 varieties each.
  • This version contains genetic material from human flu, swine flu and avian flu subtypes.
  • A kind of H3N2 caused a category 3 pandemic in 1968.
  • H3N2 doesn't show signs of becoming a pandemic yet, but the strain has some elements of the 2009 H1N1 flu virus. That is why the Centers for Disease Control have a vaccine on stand-by.

    "It's what's called a 'vaccine candidate.' And CDC has released that to manufacturers in the event that they need to produce it quickly," Vernon said. "The H3N2 that they have made into a vaccine does offer some protection. So, it's not an exact match but it will offer protection against this particular strain."

    The Centers for Disease Control report this particular strain has been around in some form since the early nineties. So some of us have already been exposed - which may be why children seem more susceptible now. But the strain has mutated again, which is typical of influenza.

    So far, it hasn't reached us here in Utah.

    We are watching it. We're aware of it. We do test for the specific types of influenza in Utah. So we do have a monitoring system to be able to catch that," Vernon said

    Vernon says to watch for symptoms like a typical flu: Fever, chill, and body ache. This season's flu vaccine will not keep you from getting the H3N2 virus, so she still urges the public to be hyper-vigilante about fighting the flu. "Cover your mouth. Wash your hands. Stay away from big crowds if you are sick," Vernon said.

    Something to look forward to is that the CDC will likely include a vaccine for the H3N2 strain in next year's flu shot batch. It takes roughly six months to make that vaccine available once a new strain of influenza virus like the H3N2 is identified and isolated.

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