Monday, July 13, 2009

What Makes Swine Flu So Dangerous?

What Makes Swine Flu So Dangerous?

What makes swine flu so dangerous is that like all influenza viruses it undergoes the process of antigenic drift. This is when spot mutations occur on the genetic material that causes slight changes in the physical make-up of the virus.

These slight changes are what frustrate scientist’s attempts to create the ultimate vaccination for influenza. Due to constant changes to the protein particles of the outer coats of viruses (which the immune system is targeted for during vaccination) new vaccines are always needed to combat ever new versions of the viruses.

Swine flu is an example of such a change. But what are these changes and what parts of the virus causes the damage that destroys normal healthy cells?
The H1N1 designation of the swine flu virus gives us a clue to the inner workings of the virus. It represents the major functional proteins on its surface.

The ‘H’ stands for hemagglutinin which is a protein that binds the swine flu virus to the cell and injects its content into it.
The ‘N’ stands for neuraminidase which possesses a number of specialized enzymes that causes the infected cells to release the newly formed viruses.

All these aspects of swine flu make it potentially very dangerous. Even though the form that is currently spreading is relatively mild it could still change into a virulent strain in the next few months before winter arrives. The fact that it’s also a new disease means that there is no current vaccine for swine flu. So if it becomes more deadly, we will have no protection against it except for those provided by generic anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu and Relenza.

Tamiflu works by blocking the action of neuroamindase, obstructing the flu virus’s ability to spread from one cell to the other. But it is only effective as a treatment if it is used in the first few days during the onset of swine flu. The problem with anti-viral drugs is that it is often very difficult to diagnose the onset of swine flu. By the time the disease is identified it’s often too late to use the drugs. This is one of the reasons the effectiveness of anti-virals drugs has been called into question.

So we are currently exposed to the full potential of swine flu. We know the devastation that influenza viruses can cause, the Spanish flu pandemic infected more than one third of the world’s population and killed more than 50 million people.

We have no choice but to be vigilant to the spread of swine flu. Millions will undoubtedly catch the disease and many more will die from it. All we can do is hope that it doesn’t become more virulent and cause too much death. In its current mild form we can contain it and can control the worse of its symptoms through the use of anti-viral drugs. But if it changes we could be in trouble. Even the vaccines that are currently been developed might not be as effective if the change is marked. What we have to remember is that it is dangerous because it is so changeable and in light of this we have no choice but to treat it with extreme caution.

By: Reas Johnson
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