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2009 in review: H1N1 pandemic tops our list of health stories

Global health experts worried that if the virus began spreading from person to person, it could spark a human chain of infection and death worse than anything seen since 1918. They ramped up flu surveillance and bolstered vaccine production. No one predicted that the next pandemic would be launched by an entirely different flu virus in Mexico.

Unlike avian flu, the new virus, H1N1, came from pigs. H1N1 also had an "extraordinary capability to spread explosively from person to person," says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fortunately, it is far less lethal to humans.

The first wave began in the spring, targeting unusual risk groups: young people, children with neuromuscular diseases, pregnant women and the obese. A summer lull in the Northern Hemisphere was balanced by a wave of cases in the south. When schools reopened, the virus came roaring back. Now the flu season appears to be subsiding, though experts say that may be another feint by a wily virus whose only constant is unpredictability.

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