Monday, September 21, 2009

H1N1 (Swine Flu), regular “flu”, and the common cold – what you should know

This will be a lengthy post, but it’s worthwhile and should provide you plenty of info regarding the H1N1 virus. If you discover an error with anything I’ve written here, please let me know in the comments section.

There’s a lot of fear going around the Finger Lakes region of New York these days, which has been only heightened by the recent report of the death of a Cornell Student due to complications from the H1N1 virus, or “Swine Flu” as it is known more commonly. So what should you do? Should you be afraid? Should you pull your kids from school at the first sign of a child’s sneezing? How do you know the difference between Swine Flu, common flu, and common cold?

Well, here are some things you should know:

First, the good news: The FDA has given approval, after trials and testing, to 4 manufacturers to produce an H1N1 vaccine. It will be available Oct. 15th to the highest risk patients (children 6 mos. to 18 yrs old, woman who are pregnant, and those with chronic health problem like asthma, diabetes, lung disease, etc… and health care workers). Shortly thereafter there should be enough of the vaccine available to all those who would like it. And before you even think it, NO, this vaccine, or any other for that matter, will not cause autism in your children (that’s a discussion for another day, so let’s move on). Its side-effects will be similar to other flu vaccines... namely, mild flu-like symptoms.

*** Oh, and as a side note… for those of you who still have the gall to question evolution, this is evolution in action, folks… if not for the predictive power of the theory of evolution, vaccines like this would not be possible (here’s an example, if you’re interested: ). So if you still want to doubt that evolution is true, then by all means, skip getting this vaccine (or any others for that matter). But I digress…

Ok… so now that we know there will be a vaccine available and soon, let’s focus on the hysteria surrounding H1N1.

How widespread is H1N1? Well, that’s part of the reason for the concern regarding H1N1… it spreads quite easily and fairly fast. The CDC currently reports 21 states (including New York) with widespread H1N1 activity. So yes, it spreads rapidly. Getting vaccinated as soon as it’s available will help slow the spread of the virus.

How is H1N1 different from normal seasonal flu? Well, in many ways, and for many people, it will be tough to distinguish Swine flu from seasonal flu. Swine flu has a tendency to have additional symptoms such as violent vomiting and diarrhea, but not all who get it will have these symptoms. Also, seasonal flu is generally more of a danger to the elderly and those with weak or compromised immune systems. The H1N1 has so far shown a tendency to be more potent in young people between 6 mos. and 25 years, and pregnant women are also more at risk. There is some debate as to the reason why the elderly seem to be less at risk for H1N1, but one popular theory is that many of the elderly have already been exposed to a predecessor of the Swine Flu (although not the exact same virus… H1N1 is a “novel virus”, meaning it has not been detected in human populations before) in prior outbreaks in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s and therefore may already possess antibodies for the virus.

So if it’s so similar to the seasonal flu in terms of symptoms, why is it seen as such a dangerous threat? This is mainly due to the fact that it’s such a new and unique strain of virus. When we are infants, we normally get exposed to about 99% of the germs and viruses we will ever encounter in our lives… during that time the body’s immune system produces antibodies that fight off these infections… this is the reason infants seem to get sick so much more often than when they get older, (and it’s also the reason that we give vaccines to our infants… vaccines are essentially engineered strains of uncommon but strong viruses that will help the body produce antibodies without making it really sick in the process). But, the benefit is that the body remembers these antibodies, and when it detects the same viruses later in life, it already has a “memory” of the antibodies needed to fight the infection off and can do say rapidly, in a matter of days or even hours. However, when the body is infected with a new virus, one that is has no antibodies for, it takes about two weeks for the body to produce antibodies that will effectively attack the virus. The problem is that during that time, an especially powerful or rapidly spreading virus (like the H1N1 appears to be) can cause too much damage and lead to sever illness before the immune system can effectively produce and release the correct antibodies.

How contagious is H1N1? It is highly contagious, as is the seasonal flu. In fact, if you have the virus, you can be contagious 24 hours before showing any symptoms. This is why it is important to maintain good sanitary habits during every flu season, such as using hand sanitizer regularly, sneezing into your arm, washing your hands regularly and not sharing utensils and other objects with other people. These are good tips for every flu season and are not meant just to prevent H1N1.

How can I tell if I’ve got the common cold, flu, or Swine flu? Well, all three can have similar symptoms… the main differences will be in the degree of those symptoms and the length of time you have them. The common cold will give you aches, pains, stuffiness, coughing and sneezing, and sometimes mild fever, but symptoms should get better in a couple of days and subside altogether within 3 or 4 days. Seasonal flu and H1N1 will have many common symptoms similar to the common cold, but will include a high fever, nausea and more sever muscle aches and pains, and will not improve as quickly as a common cold. If you have symptoms you believe to be the flu, please see your doctor immediately… the only way to know for sure if you have H1N1 is with a flu test.

Should I be afraid of H1N1? Afraid? No, not at this time. Aware and cautious? Yes. The H1N1 virus is indeed a new and potent strain of flu, but the seasonal flu itself kills 36,000 people every year. We are better equipped as a society to handle this type of outbreak than we were early in the 20th century when Swine flu wiped out millions. A vaccine is being made available and while you should take precautions to be aware of the symptoms and make sure you use common sense hygiene precautions, you should probably do that during every flu season, H1N1 or not.

So, now that we’ve covered some basic H1N1 questions, let’s talk about the vaccine.

If I get the H1N1 vaccine, am I covered for the seasonal flu as well? No. The seasonal flu vaccine was developed earlier in the year and has the 3 most common strains of flu predicted to hit the US this year in it. The H1N1 vaccine was developed separately and will only target the H1N1 virus. Please make the effort to receive both vaccines.

Is the vaccine safe? According to the CDC, yes… the H1N1 vaccine should carry essentially the same side effects as the seasonal flu vaccine. Like other vaccines, the side-effects will mainly be mild… headaches, mild fever, mild nausea, muscle aches… etc. However you must take allergic considerations into account, just like with any vaccine. People allergic to eggs, for example, should not get this vaccine.

Will the vaccine help me if I already have H1N1? No. Vaccines are meant to prevent disease, not fight it. If you already have H1N1 you will have to rely on already existing antiviral medication such as Tamiflu.

Will the vaccine be harmful if I’ve gotten H1N1 in the past? According to the CDC, no. There is no harm in being vaccinated if you’ve been infected with H1N1 in the past.

Is the H1N1 vaccine available as a shot or a nasal spray? Both. There is a shot available and a nasal spray. The two are different as to what they contain. The shot contains an “inactivated” vaccine… meaning it has fragments of the killed virus. The nasal spray contains a live, but weakened, virus that does not cause the flu itself, and is meant for healthy people age 2 – 49 years of age. Both are effective, but at this time only the shot is approved for pregnant women.

Who should get vaccinated? Initially, the vaccine will only be available to those in the highest risk categories. However, once the vaccine becomes widely available to everyone, I encourage everyone to get it. Getting vaccinated increases herd immunity and reduces the ability of the virus to spread quickly throughout the population. Additionally, if you know people who stubbornly and ignorantly refuse to get vaccinated despite studies that show it to be safe and the obvious benefit to not just themselves but the rest of us, I would avoid them like… well… like the Swine flu.

Where can I find information on H1N1 that is independent, and not sensationalized media hysteria? The CDC is the best source on information on H1N1. There you will find all the information you need regarding H1N1, how fast it’s spreading, its effect on the US population, and availability on the vaccine, as well answers to many of the questions I’ve laid out here. The CDC page on the H1N1 virus can be found here:

Also, the World Health Organization (WHO) offers a wealth of information on the H1N1 virus here:

No comments:

Post a Comment