Though its symptoms are very similar to the seasonal flu, experts
are still unsure how H1N1 may develop
Beijing has been buzzing with concerns about swine flu, or H1N1 2009 (referred to as H1N1 in this article). International schools have placed classes under home quarantine, hand sanitizers are everywhere and some schools require parents to keep a temperature log at home to monitor their children. But just how serious is H1N1, and is it worth such a flurry of activity? We did a little digging to help separate fact from fiction.
Back to Basics
H1N1 2009 was originally called swine flu because testing showed that many of the genes in this new virus were very similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs. Further study has shown that H1N1 2009 is actually very different from the virus common among pigs.
Scary terms like pandemic and influenza have been used a lot, but what exactly do these terms mean? There are many different types of influenza – the technical term for the flu – and the current H1N1 strain is simply a current mutation of this virus. A pandemic is when a disease spreads worldwide, as opposed to an epidemic, which is localized to specific country or region. Put simply, the H1N1 influenza pandemic translates to a global case of the flu. H1N1 is transferred just like any other flu or cold – via person-to-person contact, normally by sneezing or breathing.
The Flu vs H1N1 2009
There are few differences between the seasonal flu and H1N1. In fact, the symptoms are so similar you could have contracted and recovered from H1N1 without thinking you had anything more than the standard flu. According to Beijing United Family Hospital, symptoms are “what you might expect,” and include a runny or stuffy nose, sore throat and cough. Occasionally you can have diarrhea or even vomiting, and though it is possible to contract H1N1 without getting a fever, it’s unlikely.
According to the Centers for Disease Control in the US (CDC), the only apparent difference between the seasonal flu and H1N1 is that the bulk of reported cases occur in people ages 24 and under, while people over 64 are not only relatively untouched by it, but may have an antibody that protects them from it. This is particularly unusual because elderly people are generally considered to be an at-risk group for influenza.
It’s important to note that just like the flu, H1N1 can develop into pneumonia that in some cases requires hospitalization.
Should We Worry?
The reason many people are concerned about H1N1 is because it is a new strain of the flu that the medical community has not seen before. It is expected to be very contagious. Though its symptoms are very similar to the seasonal flu, experts are still unsure how H1N1 may develop. As of late September, the World Health Organization had confirmed 33,594 cases of H1N1 across Southeast Asia, and 413 deaths.
Though the death rate is low, the virus is transferred very easily. People have been advised to practice good hygiene – frequently washing hands, covering your mouth when you cough (preferably into a tissue), and making sure you dispose of tissues as soon as you’ve used them. Despite the feeling of protection a facemask may provide, wearers must still be vigilant about hand washing.
Who’s at Risk?
Children and pregnant women are considered to be particularly at risk of contracting H1N1 2009. Unusually, so are people under the age of 24. BJU notes that pregnant women who’ve contracted H1N1 2009 should monitor their condition for possible complications such as pneumonia. According to a CDC report, 100 pregnant women with H1N1 2009 were hospitalized in intensive care units and 28 died during the first four months of the outbreak in the US. No such cases have occurred within China though.
The World Health Organization reported over 39,000 people have been vaccinated in China and four have reported experiencing side effects including muscle cramps and headaches.
Also bear in mind, the CDC has stated that the standard seasonal flu vaccine will not prevent a person from contracting H1N1.
At risk-groups will be prescribed the antiviral drug oseltamivir, also known by its brand name Tamiflu. Though not a vaccine, its purpose is to prevent complications, especially pneumonia – not to ease the symptoms of H1N1.