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New non-pandemic influenza virus found in Saskatchewan hog workers

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REGINA - A new, never before seen flu virus has been found in Saskatchewan, but health officials were quick point out Tuesday that it's not connected to the current H1N1 pandemic.

Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, Dr. Moira McKinnon, told a news conference in Regina that the new flu is a mixture of a seasonal human flu and an animal strain that has been circulating in North America for several years.

"I know this is confusing because we've got swine flu H1N1 which is now freely transmitting in humans - it's not that H1N1," said McKinnon.

"We also have seasonal human H1N1 that's been around for many, many years and that is the strain that we vaccinate against every year. That's the virus that's recombined with another virus."

The new strain was found after three hog farm workers in eastern Saskatchewan fell ill in June and were tested for both seasonal and swine flu. The virus was confirmed in two cases and the third is under investigation.

McKinnon said the test results raised more questions.

"Both the tests showed positive and it's unusual to have two flus at once, two different strains of influenza," said McKinnon.

"We sent the samples to the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg and they looked at it and did the gene sequencing. They looked at the genetic material and that's where they found that two viruses had - the scientific term is - reassorted or mixed their genes," she said.

"Changes in influenza viruses occur frequently in animals and in humans ... the detection of a novel influenza virus is however a rare event."

Health officials could not say how the workers, who all had mild symptoms and have fully recovered, contracted the flu. They have been in Saskatchewan for about a year and have not travelled outside the province, said McKinnon. The 10,000 to 15,000 hogs on the farm are all reportedly healthy.

Saskatchewan chief veterinary officer Dr. Greg Douglas said "it's certainly conceivable that we'll never know where this virus came from."

There is concern because Canada was the first - and is still only one of two places - where the pandemic virus has been found in pigs.

Late Tuesday, Big Sky Farms Inc. issued a news release confirming that the workers were employed at their facilities in Humboldt, Sask.

Big Sky put protocols in place to protect the herd when the H1N1 swine flu came to light a few months ago and it says the workers followed the rules by getting medical attention and isolating themselves.

Douglas said Saskatchewan Agriculture is working with health officials to keep an eye on the herd, but added that so far "this is a human health issue."

"To date there have been no signs of increased illness in this herd and the pigs are under constant veterinary care and monitored by a herd veterinarian," said Douglas.

"Based on sound science and international guidelines, this finding should have no bearing on Canadian pork or pork products trade in the world."

McKinnon said the new flu was likely only detected because of heightened surveillance for swine flu. But she also took pains to emphasize that the new strain of influenza doesn't appear to be spreading and could result in what's called a "dead end."

"It will probably not transmit, it will probably go no further than it's gone already. This happens every now and again with influenza viruses, they do mix. More often than not they don't have the characteristics that enable them to continue," said McKinnon.

"However, it does have the potential possibly of being a new virus that spreads and that's why we have put in all these measures and will be extremely careful and vigilant about what's happening here."

The news about the new flu came the same day another death from H1N1 was announced, this time in Quebec.

There have been 37 deaths from the virus across Canada. Twelve deaths have been reported in Ontario, five in Manitoba, three in Saskatchewan, 15 in Quebec and two in Alberta.

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