Frequently Asked Questions About H1N1 Swine Flu

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The 2009 pandemic novel influenza A H1N1 received a lot of attention in the news. Is it still a threat? It's wise to know what it is, what you can expect, and how to protect yourself. Empowered patients can use this knowledge to reduce their fear of swine flu.

What Is H1N1 Swine Flu?

Swine flu is a strain of virus that shares genes with flu viruses that affect pigs. The swine flu of interest in 2009 is the novel H1N1 strain, which was passed from pigs to human beings.

It is causing illness in humans, and as of June 2009, was declared pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). In October 2009, President Barack Obama declared an H1N1 swine flu national emergency in the United States.

What Does H1N1 Influenza A Mean?

The official, scientific name for swine flu, its serologic classification, is Novel H1N1 Influenza A. "Novel" just means that it is a new strain. The H means hemagglutinin and the N means neuraminidase and the "1"s refer to their antibody type. Influenza A is a genus of the Orthomyxoviridae family of viruses and refers to the fact that the virus is first identified in an animal, usually a pig or a bird. When put together, they describe the 2009-2010 swine flu virus.

Why Is H1N1 Different from Other Flu Viruses?

There are thousands of different kinds of viruses that can cause the flu. New strains develop frequently and each one is different from the one before it.

The seasonal flu is actually comprised of several different strains of flu. Swine flu is a new, different strain of the virus.

What Are the Swine Flu Stages I Keep Hearing About?

WHO developed a plan to respond to health emergencies, like swine flu, which have the potential to become pandemic. Each stage represents a different level of response.

For example, Stage 4 means that the disease can no longer be contained inside any specific country, therefore governments must take steps to handle community spread of the disease. As of late spring 2009, H1N1 swine flu was labeled pandemic by WHO, meaning it had reached Stage 5.

What Exactly Is a Pandemic?

WHO defines a pandemic along those stages mentioned above. They describe the prevalence of the disease, across populations and countries. There is a difference between a pandemic and an epidemic.

Why Did President Obama Declare a State of Emergency in the United States?

The state of emergency declaration in October 2009 was a reaction to the fact that more than 1,000 Americans (including almost 100 children) had died as a result of H1N1 swine flu.

The declaration is less about the actual spread of the flu and more about taking down barriers to quick and more effective reaction on the part of providers, including physicians, hospitals, local health departments and others. In an official state-of-emergency, these groups have more control over how they handle their reactions and less government red tape to deal with.

I Keep Hearing "Swine Flu" and "Avian Flu" in the Same Sentence. What's That All About?

Avian flu is another name for bird flu.

This pairing is heard as "swine, avian, human" and refers to the fact that the H1N1 pandemic flu strain seems to be a combination of all three.

How Is the Swine Flu Transmitted?

The swine flu is transmitted just the way any viral disease is transmitted through person-to-person contact. One person touches something someone with a virus has already touched or droplets in the air which came from a sneeze or a cough of a person who has the swine flu spread to another person.

What Are the Symptoms of Swine Flu?

Symptoms of swine flu are the same as typical flu symptoms. Fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills, and fatigue are the most prevalent symptoms.

Some patients report diarrhea and vomiting, too.

Do People Die from Swine Flu?

People can die, but most do not.

Is There a Swine Flu Vaccine Like the Seasonal Flu Vaccine?

A vaccine was developed similarly to the way seasonal flu is developed. Specific groups of people were inoculated first, according to the plans suggested by the CDC.

Am I Safe if I Never Come Into Contact With Pigs?

No. This is a myth. Transmission of the virus doesn't require you to come into contact with pigs. It can pass from one human to another. According to the CDC, there is some evidence that people who do come into contact regularly with pigs may be immune to the swine flu.

What Should I Do if I Think I Have the Flu?

If you find yourself with flu-like symptoms, contact your doctor's office immediately and stay home from work or school. It may be the swine flu or it could be seasonal flu or any upper respiratory problem. Let your doctor figure that out for you.

Don't just show up at your doctor's office. Call first, to make an appointment. If others have symptoms, you don't want to be in the waiting room with them and your doctor will know how to be sure the illness can't pass in the waiting room.

There are some prescription drugs that your doctor may recommend that can make the illness easier to tolerate, and may help you avoid complications. Those drugs must be started within 48 hours of symptoms onset to be effective.

Make sure you cover your mouth and nose if you cough or sneeze using a tissue or your sleeve and not your hands. You don't want to transmit it to others.

How Long Will I Be Contagious?

The length of illness will depend on the severity of your case of flu. You will be contagious from one day before the onset of symptoms until five to seven days later. Children may be contagious even longer. The CDC recommends you stay home until 24 hours after your fever is gone.

Who Is Most at Risk for Catching Swine Flu?

Like any contagious disease, babies or anyone with a compromised immune system are vulnerable. Older Americans, those born before 1960, seem to have some immunity, perhaps because they exposed to a similar pathogen when they were young children.

However, what it is unusual about swine flu and is that healthy people may be at a similar level of risk. Health professionals theorize that a stronger immune system may cause the body to develop highly vigorous antibodies to attack that virus, and those antibodies inflame the lung cells, making healthy people even sicker.

People who have died from swine flu were mostly older than age 3 and younger than age 60.

Are Some People Immune?

One study of blood draws taken from a group of people of all ages showed that 1/3 of those who were age 60 and older had a pre-existing immunity. Scientists theorize those people were exposed to some sort of similar virus when they were children, and they built up the antibodies needed to fight that virus, which may protect them from this one.

If that is true, however, the patient would need to be tested to see if he/she is immune. If so, the CDC believes they will need only one shot of the vaccine instead of two.

Can Pets Get Swine Flu?

As of early November 2009, the first report was made of a cat that had been tested positively for H1N1 swine flu. Previous reports have been made of a pet ferret that was and found to have H1N1 swine flu.

So far no reports have been made of swine flu in dogs. If you have a pot-bellied pig as a pet, you'll want to check with your veterinarian.

How Can I Protect Myself and My Family from the Flu?

Follow some common sense protections emphasized for any flu, including seasonal flu:

  • Keep your hands washed and sanitized. If you touch something that may carry the infection, then avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. If you can't wash your hands frequently, then use hand sanitizers to keep the germs at bay.
  • Avoid being near others who might be sick to avoid breathing droplets they have sneezed or coughed, or touching something they have touched.
  • When you greet others, consider not shaking their hands or hugging or kissing them during this time. Those are generally courtesies. You might even explain that you are doing them a favor! They'll respect you for it.
  • If you have travel plans, do some due diligence and consider changing plans if you will be traveling to an area where cases of swine flu, even possible cases of swine flu, have been identified. The CDC issues travel advisories.
  • Plan ahead. Plan for the possibility that you or your children (meaning, you, too) might get the swine flu, including the fact that you may need to stay home from work or school. If it seems like people at work or school have an upper respiratory illness, even if they have not identified it as swine flu, you may want to consider staying home, too.
  • vaccine became available for swine flu in Fall 2009.

Can I Get Swine Flu From Eating Pork?

No. The swine flu virus is not contained in pork meat. This is another myth.

Why Do I See People Wearing Masks Over Their Nose and Mouth?

In areas where any virus is running rampant, they hope to protect themselves from breathing any droplets of virus that might be left in the air from someone who sneezed or coughed. Health officials are not sure whether those masks are helpful or not, but they certainly can't hurt.

Should I Be Afraid of Swine Flu?

Fear is not called for. A healthy respect is.

Sources:

"2009 H1N1 Flu ("Swine Flu") and You". Cdc.gov.

"Molecular Expressions Cell Biology: The Influenza (Flu) Virus". Micro.magnet.fsu.edu.

World Health Organization

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