Pandemic and panic: Swine flu Q&A

The media has been saturated with swine flu news. Here’s our round-up of questions and answers and a list of places to go for information, including some of the big swine flu news centers, official sources, and some lesser-known information.

The local angle: Minnesota has one suspected case of swine flu in Cold Spring, as of April 29, and local officials closed schools as a precaution. Official Minnesota, however, wants a name change for the new virus. Instead of “swine flu,” Minnesota’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Sanne Magnan, is calling it “H1N1 novel influenza.” Officials are responding to fears that are driving pork prices down, pointing out that you don’t get swine flu from eating pork.

Questions and answers

How serious is H1N1 “swine” flu compared to “regular” or seasonal flu?

We don’t know yet. The symptoms for both types seem similar — fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, chills and fatigue, and sometimes diarrhea.

We do not have enough information yet to say that swine flu or H1N1 is or is not more deadly than seasonal flu. People have died from H1N1, but people also die from “regular” seasonal flu — about 30,000 every year in the United States and from 250,000 to 500,000 worldwide.

What is this H1N1 or swine flu virus?

Both seasonal flu and this new strain of flu are caused by a Type A H1N1 virus. The “H1N1 novel influenza” virus contains different genetic material. The best explanation I have seen comes from BBC:

H1N1 is the same strain which causes seasonal outbreaks of flu in humans on a regular basis.

But this latest version of H1N1 is different: it contains genetic material that is typically found in strains of the virus that affect humans, birds and swine.

Flu viruses have the ability to swap genetic components with each other, and it seems likely that the new version of H1N1 resulted from a mixing of different versions of the virus, which may usually affect different species, in the same animal host.

Pigs provide an excellent ‘melting pot’ for these viruses to mix and match with each other. …

Most humans have never been exposed to some of the antigens involved in the new strain of flu, giving it the potential to cause a pandemic.

Is there a vaccine to prevent the newest strain of H1N1 flu? Can it be treated?

There is no vaccine yet, but work on developing a vaccine has begun.

H1N1 flu can be treated. Tamiflu and Relenza both seem to work, especially if treated in early stages — during the first 24-48 hours — but may also have benefit if given later in severe cases. But viruses can develop resistance to these medications, and that’s another one of the unknowns.

What makes this H1N1 flu so scary?

We don’t know what the virus is going to do to people. And that’s scary. We do know that people do not have immunity to this strain of H1N1 because it is a new virus, and because it is being transmitted person-to-person, and in countries around the world.

Why did the World Health Organization raise the pandemic alert level to Level 5? What does that mean?

WHO has a six-level alert scale. Level four means that outbreaks are occurring in community clusters. Level 5 means that human-to-human transmission is confirmed in at least two different countries. Level 6 means that there is a pandemic, defined as community level outbreaks in one additional country in another region.

How is this flu spread? Can I get it from eating pork?

This H1N1 is being transmitted person-to-person, by coughing, sneezing, or by touching infected surfaces. It is not spread by eating pork.

How bad could it get?

MPR summarizes nicely:

A full-scale pandemic — like the 1918 Spanish flu — would sicken 90 million Americans, or about 30 percent of the population.

It could claim the lives of about 2 percent of those infected, about 2 million people, according to government experts. To put that in perspective, the flu typically causes about 30,000 deaths each year.

How long do we have to worry about this flu?

Typically, the flu virus is more active in cold weather, so we are coming to the end of the season in the northern hemisphere. One reason for caution: in the 1918 flu epidemic, the virus had a relatively mild effect in the spring, and then returned with greater strength and deadliness in the fall, and that’s when it killed millions.

We may not know the full impact until some time this fall or winter.

What should we do to avoid getting sick?

Avoid close contact with people who are sick. Practice good hygiene – covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, using a tissue when possible and disposing of it promptly.

Most important – wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water. Clean hard surfaces like door handles frequently.

Keeping up with the news

Major news sites

NPR Swine Flu: On the edge of a pandemic

BBC Special Reports | Swine Flu

CDC Swine Influenza (Flu)

The Great Pandemic Website

And a few interesting sidelights

Grist links the new virus to Granjas Carroll, a pig factory-farming operation located in the state of Veracruz and owned by Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork packer and hog producer. Granjas Carroll produced 950,000 hogs in 2008. The Washington Post reports that the first person identified as having this virus is a five-year-old boy in La Gloria, and describes the town’s suspicions:

Some residents of La Gloria blame the area’s industrial hog farms for their illnesses because they said the open-air waste pits dry out and the hot winds blow dust through nearby villages.

Scientists, however, say it is more likely that people who worked with pigs became infected and passed it on to other people.

The Biosurveillance blog claims to have been the first to report the outbreak at Biosurveillance: Swine Flu in Mexico – Timeline of Events

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