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H1N1 Jumps to Pets Raise Pandemic Concerns
Recombinomics Commentary 23:23
November 7, 2009

As human infections become increasingly widespread, transmission of the virus from humans to swine is likely to occur with greater frequency.

In addition, pandemic H1N1 infections have been reported in turkeys in Chile and Canada and in a few pet animals in the USA. Again, these infections were isolated events and pose no special risks to human health.

The above comments from the WHO update on H1N1 in farmed animals suggests the infections in turkeys and pets pose no special risks to human health,  However, this statement would be true only in the narrowest sense. Pandemic H1N1 is widespread in humans and the vast majority of infections of humans are from virus in other humans.  However, the ability of this virus to jump species increases viral interactions that can result in the exchange of genetic information via recombination and reassortment.

Transmission to swine has been reported at an increasing frequency.  Yesterday a jump to swine in Taiwan was reported and today a jump to swine in Hong Kong was reported. Multiple examples in North and South America, as well as Europe, Asia, and Australia have been reported previously, and as the level of H1N1 in humans increases, the frequency of such jumps will likely increase.

However, the pandemic H1N1 is a swine virus, so there have been prior opportunities to acquire genetic information from viruses that co-infect swine. The report of jumps to turkeys however, increased concern that the virus was quite promiscuous and could jump to multiple species.

The concerns were increased by two reports of jumps to pet ferrets.  Last year a virus from the first reported natural infection in ferrets was found to be an H1N1 classical swine virus.  Therefore, a jump of swine H1N1 to pet ferrets was not unexpected.  However, these jumps were accompanied by assurances about jumps in other pets, since H1N1 had not been previously reported in cats or dogs.  However, the ability of the virus to jump to other mammals was increased by the reports of jumps to avian species , such as the turkeys described above.

Moreover, the pandemic H1N1 had a high attack rate.  The explosion of cases in the fall was tightly linked to school openings.  The virus would quickly spread in schools leading to double digit absenteeism and associated infections of teachers and staff.  In schools that had absences in the range of 20-30% for periods of 1-2 weeks attack rates approaching 100%.  This high attack rate in schools has also been reported in anecdotal reports of family attack rates of 100%.

The high attack rates are facilitate by multiple exposures within a families residence.  However, this frequent exposure would also apply to family pets that were kept indoors.

The concerns were supported by the recent report of H1N1 in a pet cat.  This was the first reported case because of the availability of testing and not due to a unique association / exposures.  Concerns that such transfers might be common were supported by anecdotal reports of cats and dogs developing flu-like symptoms following infection in owners and family members.  These anecdotal reports suggest that testing of these symptomatic pets will identify  a number of  such jumps, which raises concerns of interactions with other animal virus.

These interactions can lead to rapid evolution, and the proximity and transmissibility of pandemic H1N1 will lead to frequent transmission to humans.

Extended surveys of sequences from pet isolates should be a top priority

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