The flu is a viral infection that is caused by a specific virus type – influenza. The swine flu is a new influenza virus that is causing illness in people, first detected in April 2009. This particular virus is spreading from person-to-person throughout the world, much the same way that other influenza viruses are spread. However, unlike the seasonal variety, on June 11, 2009 the World Health Organization (WHO) signaled that a pandemic of the H1N1 (swine flu) was underway. (1)
The announcement by WHO triggered a worldwide mobilization of resources within the community, the pharmaceutical industry and businesses. It also triggered increasing feelings of fear and alarm within the community. As a result, people curtailed their travel plans, vacation resorts suffered financial losses and the pharmaceutical industry was encouraged to release a vaccine that was produced using new technology to increase the amount of product available without the necessary testing to prove it’s effectiveness and safety.
As a result of the quick movement of the vaccine to the public, the pharmaceutical company was given legal coverage from any lawsuits that might result from any side effects from the vaccine. This is the first time in history that the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has condoned the release of a medication for human use on such a fast track where the subjects were not terminally ill already. (2)
The virus was originally called ‘swine flu’ because the gene testing found the virus very similar to the type of flue that normally happens in pigs. But further study has shown that it is very different than the flu common in North American pigs and has two genes from viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and from bird genes and human genes.
The H1N1 flu virus (medical name for the virus) is contagious and spread among people in all countries around the world, including the U.S. However, most people who did get sick are recovering without any medical treatment – much the same way they do from the seasonal flu variety. And the spread of the virus is thought to happen in the same way that we are familiar with the seasonal flu. This happens from person to person through the spread of respiratory secretions – such as coughing or sneezing who are already infected. Other times people can become infected by touching an object that has the germ, such as the surface of a door handle, telephone, or toy, and then touching their mouth or nose. This effectively inoculates them with the virus. (3)
Just like the seasonal flu variety, it is unlikely that you would get infected twice with the same virus, unless you have a compromised immune system. This is because when you get infected with a virus the body manufactures antibodies against the virus so it is recognized the next time it comes in contact with the body. However, a person can get the H1N1 flu virus and then subsequently become infected with the seasonal flu because they are two different types of the influenza virus and require two different types of antibodies in the body.
There are several groups of people who are at greater risk of developing serious complications because of their underlying medical conditions. People who are 65 and older, children younger than 5, pregnant women and people of any age with a chronic medical condition, are all at greater risk because these conditions impact the overall health of the immune system. For instance, diabetes, asthma, kidney disease or heart disease, all fall within these categories. (4)
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studies have shown that those younger than 60 and younger children do not have existing antibodies against the H1N1 variety of influenza but about 1/3 of adults older than 60 have antibodies because they were exposed as a child. However, the risk of severe illness with H1N1 flu virus is higher in individuals who are younger than 25 than older which is significantly different than the seasonal flu virus.
The techniques used to prevent the spread and infection with seasonal flu with also work with H1N1 or swine flu. These precautions include using soap and water to wash your hands frequently throughout the day, using alcohol based hand rub when soap and water aren’t available, keeping your hands away from your own mouth and nose, avoid close contact with sick people, wipe surfaces in public that you must touch – such as shopping carts. If you are sick, stay away from others to prevent spreading the germ, take care to get 8 hours of rest and good nutrition to bolster your immune system.
Symptoms are serious enough to seek medical attention if a person is breathing quickly or has trouble breathing, skin is bluish, they are getting dehydrated or not drinking enough, are very irritable, have a fever with a rash or have flu symptoms that improve but then return with fever and a worse cough, dizziness, confusion, severe or persistent vomiting or pain in the chest or abdomen.
There is no real way to predict what will become a mild disease and who may suffer from a more severe case of the flu. It is important to maintain good preventative methods and supportive care if you contract the illness.
(1) American College Health Association: H1N1 Flu
(2) MSNBC.com: Legal Immunity Set for Swine Flu Vaccine Makers
(3) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: How Flu Spreads
(4) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: People at High Risk of Developing Flu-Related Complications