Swine Flu: Info for You & What to Do (Part 2)
A Life Alert Special Report
by Dr. Don Rose,Writer, Life Alert
Recap: a new strain of H1N1 (swine) flu recently emerged from Mexico and, as of this writing (May 5, 2009), has led to cases in the United States and other countries. Below is Part Two of our Life Alert Special Report providing more facts, analysis and useful information about this year’s new (“novel”) H1N1 flu.
Is there good news about this year’s novel H1N1 (swine) flu at this point?
Yes. News reports from Mexico indicate that the worst seems to be over in that country, and public activities may soon be ramping up again. Regarding the United States, as of May 4, 2009, over 225 novel H1N1 cases had been reported in over 30 U.S. states, but only one death reported in the entire United States (a toddler who came here from Mexico). The vast majority of H1N1 cases in nations outside Mexico seem to be resulting in milder outcomes than first feared.
In short, even though the 2009 novel H1N1 has spread to several countries, and has resulted in deaths that show a pattern across age groups similar to the fatality pattern of the catastrophic 1918 flu, this year’s outbreak has not caused the tens of thousands of deaths some had predicted, let alone the millions of deaths worldwide that some had feared might occur as a worst case (and which did occur during the 1918 flu pandemic).
How does the current H1N1 outbreak compare with a normal seasonal flu?
As mentioned earlier, there has been only one reported death from this year’s novel H1N1 flu in the United States. In contrast, the CDC Twitter page points out that “[s]easonal flu leads to avg of 36,000 deaths each year in U.S.” Thus, it looks almost certain that total deaths from the new H1N1 flu will be far under the average seasonal flu fatality mark.
This is one example of why we need to keep 2009’s H1N1 outbreak in perspective.
If there have been relatively few deaths from the current H1N1 (swine) flu outbreak, and if cases outside Mexico seem to have mild effects on those infected, why is the pandemic alert level so high? Why are people even using the word “pandemic”?
The designation “pandemic” refers to how widely spread a virus is -- how fast it seems to be spreading, how easy it seems to propagate -- and not the total number of deaths from a virus. It is possible to discover a flu strain that gets transmitted all over the world, yet results in relatively few deaths. This seems to be the case with the new H1N1.
How long will it take to create a vaccine to help prevent the new H1N1 flu?
According to USA Today (April 28, 2009), it could take months, and “[o]nly two methods [have been] OK’d by [the] FDA.” The website healthfinder.gov reports: Swine Flu Vaccine Still Months Away. The CDC Twitter page reports that “CDC has isolated the new H1N1 virus and is working to make a vaccine.”
In 1976 there was a flu scare, but the dire predictions never materialized. The 2009 H1N1 swine flu also seems to be relatively tame. Should I feel safe because of this?
Yes and no. Better medical technology and communication capability exists today compared to 33 years ago, so we have more weapons to fight any virulent outbreak -- but there are also many more people on the planet now, and the passing of 3+ decades has provided lots of time for a new “superflu” to evolve. Even if this year’s novel H1N1 outbreak ultimately proves relatively tame in its total effect on the planet, a future flu may turn out to be more deadly and widespread. In short, we need to remain vigilant.
There was indeed a flu outbreak in 1976 that raised fears but resulted in no deaths, and since as of this writing there has been only 1 official death in the U.S. from cases of the new swine flu, it seems that this year’s eventual outcome will be similar. However, one tragic outcome of the earlier outbreak was that the vaccine developed to fight the 1976 strain did wind up causing deaths. Perhaps this is one reason why the FDA is being so cautious this time to ensure the safety of any vaccine developed for the new swine flu.
Can I still eat pork, given that the new outbreak is referred to as swine flu and may have originated in pigs?
Yes, pork is still safe to eat. The new flu does not infect people via eating pork, according to several news sources. Just make sure pork is properly (thoroughly) cooked, as always.
What are the best actions to take in order to avoid infection by the 2009 swine flu?
Here are some rules for avoiding any flu virus, including the novel 2009 H1N1 strain:
- Wash hands frequently (for at least 20 seconds, according to one news report).
- Avoid touching your eyes, nasal passages and mouth with your hands. If you must, then wash your hands first!
- Avoid people who are sick, if at all possible.
- Avoid travel to areas known to be a hotspot for any current flu outbreak.
- Follow reports on any new flu, from reliable news sources. Avoid rumor mills.
- Don’t panic. Remember (and follow) the above rules. Keep a level head.
What should I do if I have (or suspect I have) the 2009 H1N1 flu?
If you get sick, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you stay home and limit contact with others. Their Twitter page says that it is “[a]lways important to stay home from work or school if you're sick to stop the spread.”
Similar advice came from an Associated Press article: “People with flu symptoms are advised to stay at home, wash their hands and cover their sneezes.”
In other words, you should take the same actions and precautions you would take if you had a “regular” seasonal flu. The two main goals: stop the spread of the virus and get well by helping your immune system fight it off. Here’s a summary of actions to take if you catch the flu (in addition to advice given for the previous question on avoiding infection):
- When you sneeze, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue (or, worst case, your hand).
- When done with that tissue, toss it out. (Reusing tissues can spread germs.)
- Get proper rest. Drink plenty of fluids.
- Monitor yourself closely if you develop a fever. As always, get a doctor’s advice, but keep in mind that a fever is a natural mechanism your body uses to kill off the infecting virus. In some cases, one can let the fever run its course -- that is, raise the body’s temperature until the fever “breaks” and it returns to normal, which indicates the body is winning the fight against the virus. However, the elevated temperature of a fever can be dangerous for some people, and thus a doctor’s care is crucial in order to get the best advice.
- Only go to a hospital if your symptoms are severe. A hospital can itself make you sick, and it is best to let hospitals concentrate on the very ill.
In severe cases where you don’t seem to be getting better, or you develop breathing problems or other complications, you should see a doctor. He or she can then decide if an anti-viral treatment is right for you.
What anti-viral drugs are available to treat the new flu strain?
The CDC Twitter page says that “2 antiviral drugs are recommended for H1N1 flu: oseltamivir (Tamiflu) & zanamivir (Relenza).” It is up to a doctor to decide whether you need either of these. People with severe symptoms, including difficulty breathing, would probably benefit most from using drugs like Tamiflu (the more well-known of the two CDC-recommended antiviral drugs), and hence medical facilities might only prescribe an antiviral in overt and extreme flu cases.
Where can I get more information about the 2009 H1N1 swine flu?
You can visit the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at: http://www.cdc.gov/swineflu. The CDC Twitter page is also a good resource for short bursts of update info, and it says that people can “Visit cdc.gov/h1n1flu” or “call 800-CDC-INFO.”
Also, you can read up-to-the-minute thoughts by searching ALL of Twitter: go to search.twitter.com and search for tags like #flu, #H1N1, #pandemic or #swineflu. (# is the symbol used to mark “hash tags”, which are keywords many Twitterers use to indicate the subject(s) covered in their messages.)
Given all the information discussed in the two parts of this article, the best advice seems to be this: don’t panic, but stay vigilant. There are signs that the H1N1 swine flu outbreak is stabilizing in Mexico, where it originated, and so far all cases outside of Mexico have had relatively mild effects on those infected by the new virus. Even if the current outbreak is called a pandemic, it appears that the total number of deaths will likely be less than during an average flu season, something to remember as we watch the final facts and figures unfold in the days and weeks ahead.
The information provided above is, to the best of our knowledge, reliable and accurate. However, while Life Alert always strives to provide true, precise and consistent information, we cannot guarantee 100 percent accuracy, and our articles do not offer medical advice. Readers are encouraged to research statements made, use any resource links provided, and talk to health or medical professionals in order to gather more information before drawing conclusions and making decisions.
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