Infectious disease expert says human case of rare swine flu likely a one-off

EDMONTON — An infectious disease expert at the University of Alberta says it's shocking to hear about Canada's first human case of a rare swine flu variant, but she expects it's likely a one-off.

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an associate professor in the department of medicine, wrote on Twitter "what fresh hell is this" when she first heard about the case in central Alberta.

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She added, however, that it's not likely to be a major issue.

"Most of the avian and swine influenza strains aren't all that good at spreading between people," Saxinger explained Thursday in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"It's usually a one-off situation where a person has gotten it from a bird or a pig source and that's usually the end of it. But everyone is always worried about it because occasionally those strains can turn out to spread from person to person, so there's always a cautious approach when such a thing happens."

Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said Wednesday that the variant Influenza A H1N2 case was detected in mid-October after a patient showed up with mild flu-like symptoms in an emergency department.

Hinshaw said it appears to be an isolated case and the only one of influenza so far this flu season.

It's also the first reported case of H1N2v in Canada since 2005 when reporting became mandatory— and one of only 27 cases globally.

Another expert at the University of Calgary said the history of H1N2 virus in humans shows there's no reason to worry.

"We're never 100 per cent sure, of course," said Frank van der Meer, an associate professor in global health and infectious diseases.

He said he would be more concerned about the case if there were evidence of person-to-person spread.

"If you come into contact with pigs and there's influenza circulating in pig farms, you can expect that it will spill over to the human side every so often," said van der Meer.

Officials with the province said they are still investigating the source of the virus and are looking into potential links to pig farms in the area. No other human cases have been found in retrospective testing of COVID-19 samples, they said.

Saxinger said it's comforting to hear that the province's preliminary investigation has been going on for weeks and hasn't found any spread.

"It's likely to be just an oddity that doesn't mean anything," she said. "But the timing of it, coming during a coronavirus pandemic, is just unfortunate because I don't think people want to think about it even.

"I don't think they have to think about it, honestly."

Van der Meer agreed the variant case is not a major issue.

"COVID, yes," he said. "It's my biggest concern at the moment. This one is just a fluke."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2020.

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