WEDNESDAY, June 17, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Scientists in Brazil say they've discovered a new strain of the swine flu virus, according to published reports. But it's not yet clear if the strain is any more dangerous than the previously-undiscovered strain that first surfaced in Mexico in April and has since swept the globe, causing relatively mild infections in most people.
The scientists discovered the new strain in a patient who had been hospitalized in Sao Paulo in April. The 26-year-old, who came down with flu symptoms after returning from Mexico, has made a full recovery, Fox News reported.
Health officials are closely monitoring the H1N1 swine flu virus as it migrates from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere, where the flu season is now under way. While the swine flu doesn't yet seem any more lethal than the regular flu that each winter kills 36,000 people in the United States alone, scientists fear it could mutate as it circulates around the globe, becoming more virulent and posing a greater health threat.
Nearly 36,000 people in 76 countries have been infected with the H1N1 virus, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization, causing 163 deaths. The WHO last week formally declared a pandemic, triggered by the rapid spread of the H1N1 virus across North America, Australia, South America, Europe and regions beyond.
What makes the H1N1 strain different from the typical seasonal flu is that about half of the people killed worldwide were young and previously healthy. In contrast, regular forms of the seasonal flu typically prove most lethal to the very young and the elderly.
Given that trend, school children in the United States could be among the first to receive a swine flu vaccine this fall, if federal health officials decide to pursue a widespread inoculation program. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Tuesday that she was urging school superintendents around the country to prepare for that possibility, the Associated Press reported.
"If you think about vaccinating kids, schools are the logical place," Sebelius told the news service.
Schools do sometimes work in tandem with local health officials for special flu vaccination clinics, but it's not common.
Sebelius said she'd soon call the nation's governors to be sure "these months between now and the fall aren't used as vacation months," but to prepare for potential risks posed by the H1N1 virus, the AP said. "We can always sort of back off" if the new flu fades away, she said, "but we can't wait till October hits and say, 'Oh my heavens, what are we going to do?' "
Last week, European drug maker Novartis AG announced that it had successfully produced the first batch of H1N1 swine flu vaccine, weeks earlier than had been expected. The shortened production schedule was made possible because the vaccine was produced in cells, rather than the egg-based method typically used for vaccines, the company said.
According to the AP, Novartis said it was using this first batch for evaluation and testing, prior to its use in people, and it was also being considered for use in clinical trials. Millions of doses of the vaccine might be produced weekly, the company said. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had already placed a $289 million order for swine flu vaccine with Novartis in May, the AP said.
The WHO said Monday that 76 countries have now reported 35,928 cases of H1N1 swine flue infection, including 163 deaths. The vast majority of those deaths -- 108 -- have occurred in Mexico, the source of the outbreak. The United States has reported 45 deaths, according to the agency.
According to WHO statistics, the last pandemic -- the Hong Kong flu of 1968 -- killed about 1 million people. By comparison, ordinary flu kills about 250,000 to 500,000 people worldwide each year.
Since the outbreak started in April, health officials in the United States have said that infections have been mild for the most part, and most people recover fairly quickly. Testing has found that the H1N1 virus remains susceptible to two common antiviral drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza.
For more on swine flu, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.