Arsenic exposure aids the swine flu virus

May 20, 2009 at 4:45 PM

WOODS HOLE, Mass., May 20 (UPI) -- U.S. scientists say they've found the ability to mount an immune response to the H1N1, or swine flu, virus is significantly compromised by arsenic exposure.

Researchers at the Marine Biological Laboratory and Dartmouth Medical School said such arsenic exposure can commonly occur through drinking contaminated well water.

The researchers, led by Joshua Hamilton, the laboratory's chief academic and scientific officer, and Dartmouth graduate student Courtney Kozul, said when a normal person or mouse is infected with the flu, they immediately develop an immune response, in which immune cells rush to the lungs and produce chemicals that help fight the infection.

However, in mice ingesting 100 parts per billion of arsenic in their drinking water for five weeks, the immune response to H1N1 infection was initially feeble, and when a response finally occurred it was "too robust and too late," Hamilton said.

"One thing that did strike us, when we heard about the recent H1N1 outbreak, is Mexico has large areas of very high arsenic in their well water, including the areas where the flu first cropped up," Hamilton said. We don't know that the Mexicans who got the flu were drinking high levels of arsenic, but it's an intriguing notion that this may have contributed."

The study is reported in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

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