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Swine Flu – What Is the Danger?

Faculty Member Answers Questions

May 13, 2009

By Valerie Orleans

You can’t open a newspaper without seeing stories about H1N1 Flu or swine flu, as it is more commonly known. While there have been hundreds of cases of swine flu in the United States, it appears, in most instances, to be mild to moderate. Danny Kim, assistant professor in health sciences who teaches a class in infectious disease epidemiology, answers a few questions here:

What exactly does swine flu or H1N1 flu mean? How does it develop?

H1N1 is the medical name for swine flu and it is an influenza A virus. That means it is the most common type of flu and has been responsible for the most serious epidemics. What appears to have happened is that pigs got infected with swine, avian and human influenza viruses. Then, somehow, genetic materials among these viruses were mixed and a new virus that can affect humans was formed. What’s interesting is that once this transfer occurs, pigs no longer get sick from this new virus.

So eating pork isn’t a problem?

Not at all. Pigs basically served as the ‘mixing bowls’ for this virus but once it jumps to humans, they do not get sick from the new virus.

Why is this flu strain considered more dangerous?

It’s a new strain and so our bodies have not built up immunity to it. However, keep in mind that during a normal flu season, about 0.1 percent of the population will die from a seasonal flu.

So far, swine flue is causing at least a one percent death rate among those infected with the virus. So, if you’re looking at 300 million people, about 10 to 20 percent — or a minimum of 30 million people — will develop the flu. Of these, one percent or 300,000 people will die.

This virus can be more virulent because it’s new and our bodies don’t recognize it. With a new flu, you have no immunity.

It seems like it strikes younger folks more often than older people.

It’s possible that younger and healthier folks are more liable in triggering hyperactive immune response to the virus that can cause excessive damage to the lungs. There’s some speculation that because older people have been exposed to more influenza virus strains, they may have built up greater immunity.

Right now, it seems like the cases in the United States are mild to moderate. Could that change?

It could. Right now, we’re seeing the first generation of the virus. Over the course of the next few months the virus can mutate and become more or less aggressive. We won’t really know until we’re there. That’s why people are taking precautions. It’s too soon for us to know what path this new virus will take. That’s why the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and WHO (World Health Organization) are keeping a close watch on this.

So how is it spread? Is quarantining effective?

Actually, quarantining is very effective if it’s done properly. What happens is that a person becomes infected and may be infectious to others 24 hours before exhibiting any symptoms. Usually, the infected person will be sick for three to five days before starting to recover.
If you quarantine families or groups of people for five days, that’s enough time to ensure that that group is healthy. If one or more people develop the flu, then the five days must be continued from the point where nobody is ill.

So if someone has been to Mexico and it’s been a week since they’re returned, assuming they have no symptoms, they’re safe?

Well, most likely they’re as safe as anybody who hasn’t been to Mexico.

Why isn’t there a vaccine for this?

It generally takes four to six months to develop a vaccine. The government is working on one now but it won’t help people who are currently infected. The U.S. government hopes to have the vaccines ready before the start of our next flu season, which is from November to April.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms are like any other flu but they may be more severe. For instance, if someone is having difficulty breathing, keeping food or fluids down because of vomiting or diarrhea, experiencing chest or abdominal pains ... go to the emergency room or see your doctor right away. In most cases, severity of the flu symptoms can be attenuated with Tamiflu or Relenza (prescription medications). But you need to be seen within 48 hours of symptoms for the medications to be effective.

What can individuals do to minimize their chances of contracting the flu?

First, if you’re sick, stay home. If you come to school or work, you risk infecting many others. Hand washing is also important — and that means with soap and for at least 20 seconds. Wash between your fingers, too.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers also can help as can using something like a Clorox wipe to clean off doorknobs, banisters, tabletops — any place people touch. A virus can live for two hours on such a surface. Also, try not to touch your eyes and mouth.

If we all do our part, we can protect one another and our community.

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