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The Origins of the Flu

The CBC's excellent news show The National had an in-depth report Friday night on the apparent origin of SARS in the masked palm civet (covered by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal).

The reporter interviewed Laurie Garrett, author of a book with the prescient-sounding title
The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance
. She had this to say about influenza as an example of ongoing animal-to-human disease transmission:

We now know that influenza is actually an aquatic migratory bird virus. So what you have happening is, aquatic birds flying over these tethered ducks [outside homes and farms in southern China] and the bird droppings infect the tethered duck. The tethered duck then passes its virus to the pig, and then the farmers become infected from exposure to an ailing pig. That's why every year, the new mutant strains of influenza always come out of China.
I never understood the influenza cycle before -- I only had this vague impression that new flu strains came from Asia. It's good to finally understand how it works (even if only at a superficial level).

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