UCLA researchers have found high numbers of pigs in Africa have been exposed to human H1N1 flu, which they say could lead to a pandemic in humans.
The scientists found 89 percent of pigs in one village in northern Cameroon had been exposed to H1N1 flu, formerly called swine flu.
According to Thomas B. Smith, director of UCLA's Center for Tropical Research and the senior author of the study:
"Africa is ground zero for a new pandemic. Many people are in poor health there, and disease can spread very rapidly without authorities knowing about it."
Smith says nearly every pig in the village had been exposed to H1N1. Two of the animals had active infection.
The presence of H1N1 in the pigs was a surprise to researchers. Kevin Njabo, who led the study said, "I was shocked when we found out it was H1N1".
Njabo, associate director of the Center for Tropical Research, says, “Any virus in any part of the world can reach another continent within days by air travel. We need to understand where viruses originate and how they spread, so we can destroy a deadly virus before it spreads. We have to be prepared for a pandemic, but so many countries are not well-prepared — not even the United States."
He explains the H1N1 virus found in the pigs came from humans and is identical to the strain found in San Diego a year before the study. His research team is studying how diseases move between animals and humans.
He H1N1 pandemic of 2009 infected people in more than 200 countries. The UCLA researchers, whose study is published in the journal Veterinary Microbiology, warn that it’s important to remain vigilant.
Smith said, "When different strains of influenza are mixed in pigs, such as an avian strain with a human strain, you can get new hybrid strains that may affect humans much more severely and can potentially produce a pandemic that can allow human-to-human infection. This is how a pandemic can arise; we need to be very vigilant.”
Njabo explains researchers have limited knowledge of how infections spread between humans and animals, making it important to expand screening for diseases that could cause human illness.
The researchers are doing just that. Smith and Njabo are working with UCLA's Global Bio Lab, in collaboration with Hilary Godwin, a professor of environmental health sciences at the UCLA School of Public Health, to identify new diseases. Their goal is to quickly develop new vaccines and try to prevent the next pandemic.
Other researchers are conducting similar studies in China, Bangladesh and elsewhere.
Smith says the UCLA finding makes the movie “Contagion” even more of a reality.
"It would be comforting to believe that the deaths of tens of millions of people, or more, as depicted in the movie 'Contagion' is merely science fiction, but something that resembles what is depicted there could happen under a certain set of circumstances."
Njabo refers to the world as a "global village" in which" no one is truly isolated". The research also highlights the need for better farming practices. In addition to collecting samples from livestock, Njabo, who is from Cameroon, plans a workshop next year to teach villagers how to raise pigs in a way that can help curb spread of infection.
The pigs in the study exposed to H1N1 are primarily free-roaming, indicating farm confinement is better practice. Njabo has alerted the government's Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries, and Animal Industries of the findings.
According to Smith and Njabo, three flu pandemics killed more than 20 million people in the 20th Century.
The UCLA scientists say rampant H1N1 flu found in the Cameroon pigs could lead to a human pandemic, unless scientists remain vigilant. Viruses can mutate to become extremely virulent, spreading rapidly. In the study, the pigs were found to have a human strain of H1N1 flu, which consists of swine, avian and human influenza viruses.