Friday, March 09, 2012

Flu Fridays: Swine flu, bird flu…Now bat flu?

Happy Flu Friday! You’ve probably heard of both swine flu and bird flu. But if you’ve been watching the news recently,  you may have heard of a new strain of the flu that was discovered in Guatemalan fruit bats.

Yes, we said bat flu! This newly discovered flu virus is a type of influenza A virus, with a scientific name of H17. Scientists discovered the influenza while testing the bats for other types of viruses; they believe that H17 is distantly related to the strains of influenza A that are prevalent in humans today.

The phlebotomist standing in the background of this image is holding a blood-filled, purple-tipped, vacutainer test tube with her extended right hand, upon which she was wearing a protective latex glove.
Image courtesy CDC/ Amanda Mills
If you saw the movie “Contagion,”  you might remember that the flu virus in the film started with a bat. But don’t start to panic just yet: Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  don’t believe that this newly discovered bat flu poses any risk to humans — at least, not right now. There is always a chance that the virus could combine with other strains of influenza to produce a new version of the flu that is easily spread in human populations. Scientists are now testing bats in other parts of the world to see if H17 is widespread.

Why test bats, you ask? Well, they’re the second-largest group of mammals on the planet, and they live almost everywhere on earth, except for the Arctic and Antarctic. They’re known to host other types of viruses, like Ebola and the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, also known as SARS. And because they live in groups and are capable of flying, they could potentially spread whatever viruses they carry — to other bats, other animals and perhaps to humans.

By studying bats and bat flu,  researchers can learn more about the influenza and how it’s spread — hopefully keeping us safer in the process!

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