What is the history of H1N1 influenza (swine flu) pandemics?

Updated: Apr 09, 2019
  • Author: Michael Stuart Bronze, MD; Chief Editor: Russell W Steele, MD  more...
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Answer

The ability to trace outbreaks of swine flu in humans dates back to investigation of the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, which infected one third of the world’s population (an estimated 500 million people) and caused approximately 50 million deaths. In 1918, the cause of human influenza and its links to avian and swine influenza was not understood. The answers did not begin to emerge until the 1930s, when related influenza viruses (now known as H1N1 viruses) were isolated from pigs and then humans. [3]

In humans, the severity of swine influenza can vary from mild to severe. From 2005 until January 2009, 12 human cases of swine flu were reported in the United States. None were fatal. In 1988, however, a previously healthy 32-year-old pregnant woman in Wisconsin died of pneumonia as a complication of swine influenza.

A 1976 outbreak of swine influenza in Fort Dix, New Jersey, involved more than 200 cases, some of them severe, and one death. [4] The first discovered case involved a soldier at Fort Dix who complained of feeling weak and tired. He died the next day.

The fear of an influenza pandemic in 1976 led to a national campaign in the United States designed to immunize nearly the entire population. In October, 1976, approximately 40 million people received the A/NewJersey/1976/H1N1 vaccine (ie, swine flu vaccine) before the immunization initiative was halted because of the strong association between the vaccine and Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). [5, 6] About 500 cases of GBS were reported, with 25 deaths due to associated pulmonary complications. [7]

A recent investigation sought to determine the link between GBS and the 1976 swine flu vaccine, since subsequent influenza vaccines did not have this strong association. Nachamkin et al found that inoculation of the 1976 swine flu vaccine, as well as the 1991-1992 and 2004-2005 influenza vaccines, into mice prompted production of antibodies to antiganglioside (anti-GM1), which are associated with the development of GBS. They proposed that further research regarding influenza vaccine components is warranted to determine how these components elicit antiganglioside effects. [8] See the images below.

This preliminary negative stained transmission ele This preliminary negative stained transmission electron micrograph depicts some of the ultrastructural morphology of the A/CA/4/09 swine flu virus. Courtesy of CDC/ C. S. Goldsmith and A. Balish.
This preliminary negative stained transmission ele This preliminary negative stained transmission electron micrograph depicts some of the ultrastructural morphology of the A/CA/4/09 swine flu virus. Courtesy of CDC/ C. S. Goldsmith and A. Balish.

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