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Researchers Link Influenza in Pigs and Birds to 1968 Strain that Killed a Million People

Update Date: May 11, 2013 12:35 PM EDT

Researchers and health experts have looked into the current H7N9 flu strain that is circulating in Shanghai and surrounding provinces in China. Researchers currently do not know how the flu started in the poultry stock, but the World Health Organization (WHO) has stressed that the flu is not currently transmissible from human to human. In a new study, researchers looked at the current strains of influenza that are circulating in birds and pigs, and found that these strains might be linked to a strain known as H3N2. H3N2 originated from Hong Kong in the summer of 1968 and killed around one million people globally.

The research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discovered that birds and pigs seem to still carry some of the strains of H3N2, known as H3. These strains are genetically similar to the 1968 strain and could potentially pose a very dangerous health issue for the global world. Ram Sasisekharan, the Alfred H. Caspary Professor of Biological Engineering at MIT, headed the team.

According to the researchers, although strains of H3N2 continue to circulate in humans, they have at least evolved into less dangerous and threatening forms of the bird flu. The strains, in poultry however, could become a huge issue, especially if thee strains have not changed enough over time. The researchers wanted to test whether or not theses particular strains could cause a pandemic. The researchers compared the 1968 H2N3 strain to nearly 1,100 H3 strains, and looked for a particular gene responsible for the viral hemagglutinin (HA) protein. The researchers found 581 of the H3 samples that would be a threat to humans, 549 were from birds and 32 from pigs. When these samples were exposed to antibodies found in current day vaccines, the researchers found that these antibodies were ineffective in treating these H3 strains.

"The findings from this study will raise our awareness for potential H3N2 flue pandemics and will at the same time help us monitor, prevent and prepare for such events," commented Yizhi Jane Tao, who was not a part of the study.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. It was published in the journal, Scientific Reports

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