Courtesy Reuters

The rapid emergence of the H1N1 strain of influenza in North America and its subsequent global spread have reminded the world that viruses and other microbes are often not limited to specific species and have little regard for international boundaries. While the world was watching to see if the highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza, the so-called bird flu, in Asia and Africa would mutate to make transmission easy among humans, the new H1N1 influenza -- first called swine flu because it shares several gene sequences with influenza viruses found in pigs -- seems to have already made that transition.

Changes to influenza viruses can happen as a result of quick mutations or as the end result of a slower drift in genetic material. At the same time, different influenza viruses exchange entire genetic segments with one another when they simultaneously infect the same person or animal. One of

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  • WILLIAM B. KARESH is Vice President and Director of the Global Health Program and President of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s World Animal Health Organization (OIE) Working Group on Wildlife Diseases.
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