Every year around this time, we doctors and other healthcare providers are flooded with questions about “the flu,” and this year is no exception. In fact, all of the news reports regarding the H1N1 virus, the so-called “swine” flu, has pumped up interest about this year’s flu season to a “fever” pitch! (Pardon the pun!)
What’s in a name?
Just to set the record straight, while this strain of influenza has been dubbed swine flu, there’s no need to throw out the ham, bacon or any other pork products you may have in your refrigerator. There hasn’t been a single case of flu-stricken pigs here in the United States — or anywhere in the world, in fact. And there is no evidence that being in proximity to pigs or eating pork products poses any increased risk of becoming infected with the virus.
When the virus was first discovered, it appeared to have many genes similar to those normally occurring in pigs (swine) found in North America. However, further study has shown the genes are actually quite different from those found in North American pigs. The H1N1 virus appears to be a genetic “mixture” of viruses that normally appear in pigs, birds and humans.
Regardless of the origin of this flu virus, it’s important to understand the implications it has for your health, and how you can take precautions against becoming infected.
How is swine flu different from seasonal flu?
Every year, the virus that causes the seasonal flu we see each fall and winter changes a bit. But those changes are small, and people who have had the flu in previous seasons will likely have some resistance to the virus. But this H1N1 flu virus is new — and different enough — that many people, especially younger people, will have no resistance to it.
The symptoms of swine flu are similar to those of seasonal influenza. These include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuff nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. In addition, a significant number of people who have become infected with the H1N1 virus have also reported diarrhea and/or nausea. Gastrointestinal symptoms are not normally associated with seasonal influenza, which is a respiratory infection.
How severe are these symptoms?
As with seasonal flu, we’ve seen H1N1-related illness run from mild to severe. While there have been some deaths caused by complications from H1N1 infection, at this point we should not conclude that the severity of the H1N1 virus is any greater than with seasonal flu. Most people who have been sick with this virus have recovered without needing medical treatment. And, it should be noted, about 20,000 people in the United States die from complications of seasonal flu every year. Both seasonal flu and the new H1N1 strain of flu are nothing to sneeze at (pardon the pun ... again!) and should be avoided if at all possible.
So, how do I do that?
Take precautions! The seasonal flu vaccine is available now and, almost without exception, I advise my patients to get vaccinated as soon as it becomes available. Since the viruses in the flu vaccine are already dead, you cannot, repeat, cannot get the flu from being vaccinated. Some people may suffer from minor side effects, like low-grade fever or achiness. The bottom line is that, however sick you may get from the flu shot, it will not be as bad as getting the flu. The seasonal flu vaccine will not protect you against H1N1 (swine flu), but a separate vaccine for this strain will be ready in a few weeks. While there are still some unanswered questions about how the vaccine will be administered (one dose or two), which will impact supplies, it now appears there will be enough vaccine available.
Since delivery of the vaccine may be staggered initially, the Centers for Disease Control is recommending that priority be given to pregnant women, people who live with or care for children younger than 6 months of age, healthcare and emergency medical services personnel with direct patient contact, persons between the ages of 6 months and 24 years old and people ages 25-64 who are at higher risk for 2009 H1N1 because of chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems.
Current studies point out an interesting aspect of the H1N1 virus, which differentiates it from seasonal flu. People over the age of 65 are often among the highest risk groups for seasonal flu. However, it appears the risk for infection for swine flu is actually less for those 65 or older than for younger age groups. So the CDC is recommending that younger age groups be vaccinated ahead of those over age 65.
Finally, there are some other everyday actions you can take to keep healthy and avoid spreading the H1N1 or any virus: — Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it. — Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective. — Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread that way. — Stay home if you get sick. CDC recommends that you stay home from work or school at least 24 hours and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.
Dr. Rob Winn is medical director at Mazzoni Center, the Philadelphia region’s only LGBT health center.