Pill-Popping Flu Invulnerability

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Any residence of Texas knows about “The Valley,” even if he or she doesn’t happen to live there. Not really a valley it all, it’s that area down along the Rio Grande that constitutes the border there between the US and Mexico, a handy place for new Mexican immigrants to the US (legal or otherwise) to get their start, but otherwise producing little of note for the world other than folk singer Kris Kristofferson and legends from the Streets of Laredo.

Now The Valley has produced something else, something that has caught the attention of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO): a new strain of swine flu that is resistant to the main drug the world is relying on to counter its effects, Tamiflu. Reports about this come both from France’s Le Point and (perhaps somewhat strangely) Denmark’s leading business newspaper, Børsen, which cite PAHO spokeswoman Maria Teresa Cerqueira, attending a swine flu conference currently happening in La Jolla, California.

Granted, this same Tamiflu-resistant strain has already been spotted in Denmark, Japan, Hong Kong, and even once before in North America, namely in Canada. But how did it come about? Cerqueira: “In the USA Tamiflu is sold by prescription, but in Mexico and Canada they sell it over-the-counter and take it at the first sneeze. And now that it is really needed, it doesn’t work anymore.” In other words, if you grant the assumption that the swine flu we can expect in the autumn is likely to be deadlier than what we’ve encountered so far (although, to be fair, the past strain did kill 353 persons in the USA and 143 in Mexico, among others), then pill-popping Mexicans and Canadians have exhausted the world’s Tamiflu firepower on the earlier, safer version – which reportedly merely caused symptoms comparable to any common, garden-variety flu – and thus have left everyone vulnerable to the more dangerous strain.

There’s perhaps a glimmer of hope in the Le Point piece, namely that one patient found to have the Tamiflu-resistant virus was able to be cured with another drug, “Zanamivir,” made by GlaxoSmithKline. So maybe there’s still an alternative cure available – until the virus in short order develops resistance to that!

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