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Tuesday, 18 January, 2000, 16:33 GMT
Astronomers say flu came from outer space

Comet Hale-Bopp Do comets seed the Earth with flu?

The flu outbreak which has struck down tens of thousands of sufferers may have come from outer space, according to scientists based in Cardiff.

Astronomers at the University of Wales are challenging the view that the outbreak was caused by the bug being passed from person to person.

Instead they blame the spread of the illness - which brought many hospitals to a standstill - on solar activity which brought cosmic dust into the earth's atmosphere.

However, a British expert in viral diseases, Dr Nigel Higson, has described the theory as "very unlikely."

Dust from comets

The Cardiff-based team led by Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe believes the dust from comets which passed near the Earth contain either the virus itself or DNA molecules which produce the flu bug.

They also claim their solar theory was responsible for other outbreaks, including the 1918 epidemic of Spanish flu which was blamed for 20 million deaths worldwide.

Their report, called The Dilemma of Influenza, is due to be published in the journal Current Science.

Prof Wickramasinghe claimed the theory could also help health managers prepare for major outbreaks of disease.

Solar activity link

"It could help predict epidemics because there is a very short space in time between a peak in solar activity and the effects reaching us here on earth.

"It has never been proven that a virus such as the flu can be passed from one person to another," said Professor Wickramasinghe.

"Instead, we believe these outbreaks are caused by particles in the stratosphere coming down to the earth's surface."

"What we are getting from the high atmosphere, be it a virus or a genetic trigger, is significantly more dangerous than anything we may catch from other people," he added.

Theory discounted

But Dr Nigel Higson, Chairman of the Primary Care Virology Group, said it was "very unlikely" that individual flu outbreaks could be linked to dust from outer space.

"Humans are not the natural host for flu, it tends to be found in birds where it can change very quickly, before being transmitted to the human population through close contact," said Dr Higson.

"I can't prove or disprove the theory that flu comes from space - but it doesn't affect the management of a virus wherever it comes from," he added.

Dr Higson said further research was being carried out to establish how flu viruses are spread from one individual to another
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See also:
27 Aug 99 |  Sci/Tech
Water found in meteorite
15 Jan 00 |  Wales
Flu figures in Wales show fall
10 Jan 00 |  Health
Flu crisis deepens

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