No risk of getting influenza A(H1N1) virus through food, says UN health agency

3 May 2009

There is no reason to be afraid of consuming pork or to cull any pigs, the United Nations health agency once again stressed today, despite the detection of the influenza A(H1N1) virus in a swine herd in Canada.

“This is not a food-borne disease,” Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, Food Safety Scientist at the World Health Organization (WHO), emphasized at a news conference in Geneva.

“You don't get this disease through eating pork and, therefore, there is no reason to be afraid of consuming pork or pork products,” he added.

“From all the studies that have been done with influenza viruses – whether it's avian influenza viruses, human viruses or swine viruses – they all seem to have more or less the same characteristics in terms of their heat resistance. As soon as you cook a product that may contain these viruses, they will get inactivated.

“So consuming fully-cooked or well-cooked products, whether we're talking about this virus in pork or avian influenza virus in chickens, there is no risk of getting infected that way,” Dr. Embarek stated.

WHO announced today that Canada reported on 2 May the identification of the A(H1N1) virus in a swine herd in Alberta.

“It is highly probable that the pigs were exposed to the virus from a Canadian farm worker recently returned from Mexico, who had exhibited flu-like symptoms and had contact with the pigs,” the agency noted. “There is no indication of virus adaptation through transfer from human to pigs at this time.”

Dr. Embarek stated that there is at present no recommendation to cull any pigs anywhere in the world.

Meanwhile, 18 countries have officially reported 898 human cases of influenza A(H1N1) infection, according to WHO's latest update.

Mexico has reported 506 confirmed human cases of infection, including 19 deaths. WHO reiterated that the higher number of cases from that country in the past 48 hours reflects ongoing testing of previously collected specimens.

Meanwhile, the United States Government has reported 226 laboratory confirmed human cases, including one death.

In addition, the following countries have reported laboratory confirmed cases with no deaths: Austria (1), Canada (85), China, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (1), Costa Rica (1), Denmark (1), France (2), Germany (8), Ireland (1), Israel (3), Italy (1), Netherlands (1), New Zealand (4), Republic of Korea (1), Spain (40), Switzerland (1) and the United Kingdom (15).

WHO spokesperson Gregory Härtl told reporters that the agency's pandemic alert still remains at Phase 5 – on a six-level warning scale – meaning that sustained human to human transmission had been confirmed, with widespread community outbreaks in at least two countries in one WHO region.

He said it was not possible to say when the alert level might be increased to Phase 6. “That is not very easy to predict because transmission of influenza virus or of any virus for that matter does not necessarily always move at the same speed. There could be a hiatus in its spread? especially we have not seen any confirmed instances of sustained human transmission in communities outside of the Americas.

“We don't know when that will happen. Certainly we remain on alert in case that happens. But it would not be prudent to make a prediction in that regard,” he stated.

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