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What is the H5N1 flu virus?

Swine flu, is a contagious respiratory disease that affects pigs. It is caused by a type-A influenza virus. Outbreaks in pigs occur year-round.

The most common version is H1N1. The current strain is a new variation of an H1N1 virus, which is a mix of human and animal versions. While the virus causes regular outbreaks in pigs, people are not usually struck by swine flu.

However, there have been instances of the virus spreading to people and then from one person to another. The only difference is, says the CDC, transmission in the past did not spread beyond three people as is the case this time.

People normally get swine flu from infected pigs. For example, farmers handling infected pigs can contract the virus. However, some human cases have occurred without contact with pigs or places they inhabited.

The symptoms of H5N1 swine flu are similar to the common flu. They include fever, lethargy, lack of appetite, coughing, runny nose, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

The H5N1 virus spreads the same way the seasonal flu does. When an infected person coughs or sneezes around another person, the latter is put at risk. People can become infected by touching something with the flu virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes. An infected person can pass the virus to another before any symptoms even develop Scientists are concerned whenever a new virus is able to jump from an animal to a person -- and then spread from person to person.

When the H5N1 flu virus spreads from person to person, it can continue to mutate, making it harder to treat or fight off. The World Health Organization has said the current outbreak has "pandemic potential," and has urged governments to take precautions to prevent its spread.

If the H5N1 virus continues to mutate, drug makers won't be able to come up with vaccines fast enough. Just like the regular flu, swine flu worsens pre-existing medical conditions in people so people with already compromised immune systems can die after contracting it.

Common seasonal flu kills 250,000 to 500,000 people worldwide every year. But what worries officials is that a new strain of the flu virus can spread fast because people do not have natural immunity and vaccines can take months to develop.

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