Iowa experts on the avian flu virus say wild and pet birds could bring the disease into the state, but it could be Iowa-grown hogs that spread the disease to humans. Iowa State University microbiologist Dennis Senne says hogs have something unique that makes this a possibility.
He says pigs have for years been considered “potential mixing vessels” for influenza viruses. Senne says pigs have receptors that can accommodate influenza strains that originate in birds and those that originate in humans. Senne says the pig mixers could help the virus spread.
He says by mixing the genes, you could come up with the combination of an offspring that would have the potential to replicate in humans and still cause a serious disease.
Senne says the pigs have been linked to some past disease outbreaks — but he says it doesn’t seem to be as big a factor now. He says there’s less emphasis on pigs being a mixing vessel today than there was 10 to 15 years ago. But Senne says the potential is still there and that’s why workers in the swine industry are encouraged to get vaccines for the traditional flu so they don’t infect pigs.
Senne isn’t ready to point out the pig as the possible connection that would allow the avian virus to jump to humans. He says, “It’s hard to say if that would be likely. No one, and I mean no one, has been able to predict a pandemic. We just don’t have that kind of capability.”
Senne says pigs have been found with the genes for the current human flu virus, which he says is direct evidence that the virus has indeed been passed back and forth from pigs to humans. He says that’s why there’s concern about the potential for the avian flu transfer.