The swine flu illness, or A (H1N1) was given pandemic status by the World Health Organization (a mark of its ability to spread, rather than the severity of the illness) on June 11, 2009. So far the illness has struck more than a million in the U.S. alone, yet scientists are still learning some very basic things about this organism, unknown in humans until April 2009 in Mexico.
It seems that this newest flu virus affects the lungs and stomach, while seasonal flu viruses tend to leave these organs untouched. The intriguing research reports appear in the July 2, 2009 online edition of Science.
In experiments with ferrets (because flu effects them in the same way as humans), teams in the U.S. and the Netherlands found that the new strain of flu virus replicated more extensively in the respiratory tract. The seasonal flu virus remained mostly in the animals’ nasal cavities. The A (H1N1) virus also found its way into the ferret’s intestinal tract, again unlike its seasonal counterpart.
When it comes to the new virus’ ability to spread, the research teams differ.
The Dutch scientists found that swine flu is just as easy to transmit as the regular flu, while the U.S. team found A (H1N1) less likely to be spread when compared to seasonal flu. They believe that the respiratory droplets don’t seem to transmit A (H1N1) viruses as well as they do the regular flu virus.
“Findings from the study demonstrate that, in ferrets, the novel 2009 H1N1 influenza virus leads to increased morbidity and increased respiratory disease when compared to contemporary seasonal human influenza viruses,” explains researcher Terrence M. Tumpey, a senior microbiologist in the influenza branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But just because this flu might not be as easily spread does not mean that H1N1 can’t cause trouble, serious trouble, once in the human body.
Health officials are convinced they will be able to create a vaccine for A (H1N1)… but the challenge is vaccine making isn’t an exact science or a quick process. As it is scientists take a calculated risk every year in choosing which strains of flu virus to protect against.
These latest findings are helpful according to U.S. researchers as they suggest to authorities what the appropriate public health response might be.
Only two weeks ago, U.S. health officials mentioned that they were thinking about a swine flu immunization campaign that might involve an amazing 600 million doses of the vaccine.
Seasonal flu, by contrast, calls for the administration of about 115 million vaccinations per year; childhood vaccines total 150 million doses annually.
Still to be worked out is finding the health care professionals to administer all those shots, and a way to keep track of side effects from the vaccinations.
“One thing we know for sure about influenza viruses is that they are unpredictable,” Tumpey cautioned. “The characteristics that the virus is displaying today might not hold true in the upcoming months.”
So what can you do to protect yourself and your family until a vaccine is ready?
Here are five common sense suggestions from the experts.
1. Wash your hands as much as possible – use the warmest water you can, lather up with soap and rub your fingers, palms, and even under your nails and up your wrists for two choruses of “Happy Birthday”. If you’re without soap and water, hand sanitizers serve very well.
2. Cover up when you cough or sneeze – using your shoulder, or the crook of your elbow to capture the droplets that are sent into the air and contain the infectious organisms. Wash your hands right away.
3. If you’re sick, stay home – if you develop aches, fatigue, fever, coughing or sneezing – don’t push yourself… stay home. Call your doctor for advice or an appointment, especially if you have an underlying health condition.
4. Don’t touch your face – it’s such a natural impulse, but it’s also a direct route to the bloodstream for unwanted germs, flu viruses included. Keep your hands away from those mucous membranes – eyes, nose and mouth – as much as possible.
5. Stay away from sick people – not easy, if you’re a parent (or spouse) of someone struggling with A (H1N1) flu… or the coworker of someone who refuses to call in sick. Limit time with this person as much as possible. Up your hand washing after whatever contact you have. Use a face mask if you must be very close or the patient is coughing or sneezing quite a bit.
If you do come down with A (H1N1) the good news is that the illness is generally mild you’re your recovery will likely be fairly quick. And though the virus is spreading around the world, it has shown no signs, as yet, of mutating to a more dangerous form.
Your best bet in the face of the unpredictableness of swine flu illness is to stay informed, keep up your hand washing and follow all other infection control procedures faithfully, even when it seems the worst has passed.