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Name: Richard
Status: Educator
Grade:  Other
Location: N/A
Country: United States
Date: February 2006


Question:
My students have asked "What to the letters and numbers mean in the bird flu H5N1? Are they just a code or do they means anything? If they are a code how are viruses numbered?"



Replies:
The numbers refer to the types of antigens/proteins that are found on their surface. These are proteins that allow the virus to attach and enter the host cell. Because there is variety in all proteins and they mutate over time, there are different versions of each protein. The N stands for neuraminidase and the H stands for hemaglutinin. So H5N1 is a virus that has the "5th" type of H gene and the "1st" type of N gene. I don't know if they are named in the order in which they were discovered. What scientists worry about is that more than one of these viruses can inhabit a host cell at the same time. If one is the H5N1 version that so far only infects birds and can't spread from human to human, and another is say H3N2, which is able to spread between humans are inhabiting the same cell and exchange parts, the bird flu would be able to spread from person to person. Viruses mutate very rapidly and there is nothing that says it WILL do this-it may never happen. But it COULD happen, and it is good that the CDC and the WHO are monitoring the situation and trying to be prepared in case it does. Here is a link to a good animation that shows how this process could take place:

http://www.colorado.edu/Outreach/BSI/k12activities/interactive/actidfluanimation.html

vanhoeck



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