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Meet the pandemic that has survived a decade

India, like most nations, is fighting two pandemics: COVID-19, the casualty numbers of which are ever rising, and swine flu, which never left the country after becoming a pandemic in 2009 

By Rajit Sengupta
Published: Wednesday 29 July 2020

The world amid the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is full of fears: Of human contact, of age, of co-morbidity and of an economic morass. For many, the consolation is the thought that this will end soon: A month, few months or even a year. But a look at the last pandemic—the 2009 swine flu—suggests something else.

These pathogens—viruses, bacteria or other disease-inducing microorganisms—never really die; they live on silently for years, even decades, before transforming into seasonal outbreaks. The intensity and epicentre vary every time.

Swine flu killed more than 285,000 people worldwide before morphing into a seasonal flu. It means that even though the world no longer talks about the disease, its onslaught continues.

This can be clearly seen in the case of India. It recorded 36,240 cases and 1,833 deaths of the disease between May 2009 and 2010. Every year since, a considerable number of cases and deaths have been recorded. Nearly 39,000 swine flu cases and an unprecedented 2,270 deaths were recorded in 2017.

In 2019 too some 29,000 were infected and 1,200 died across the country. In the first two months of 2020, 1,100 were infected and 18 died, according to the most recent data from the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme under the National Centre for Disease Control.

Epicentres, meanwhile, have varied: From Delhi, Maharashtra and Rajasthan in 2009 to Gujarat, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh in ’17, back to Rajasthan, Delhi as well as Gujarat in ’19.

What-if, if-only

Swine flu and COVID-19 are both highly contagious but the world was better prepared for the flu. Humans have been dealing with the flu for more than 100 years now even since 1918 Spanish flu pandemic ravaged a world that was yet to discover flu viruses. Societies have ever since been alert about infectious disease. The world developed a vaccine just six months into the 2009 outbreak. But the onslaught of swine flu continues.

While anyone can catch COVID-19 or swine flu, the rates of infection and death are higher in the former.

Pandemic in pandemic

Researchers have recently found a new strain of the swine flu virus (H1N1) spreading silently among workers at pig farms in China. The newer strain, G4 EA H1N1, has been common in such farms since 2016 and replicates efficiently in human airways, according to the study published in journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers surveyed pigs in 10 Chinese provinces 2011-2018; in the last three years, they collected 338 blood samples from workers at 15 farms and 230 from those in nearby households: 10.4 per cent workers and 4.4 per cent of others had antibodies to the new strain. Workers aged 18-35 years tested positive at a higher rate: 20.5 per cent. So far, it has infected some people without causing disease and is no evidence of the disease travelling between humans, but that could change without warning.

This triggers a fear that the world might just witness its first pandemic-within-a-pandemic.

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