Question & Answer: What Is Swine Flu?

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swine-fluA swine flu outbreak that appears to have caused fatalities in humans in Mexico and nonfatal cases in the United States prompted the World Health Organization this weekend to urge countries around the world to be alert for suspicious cases of influenza WHO chief Margaret Chan says the global body is taking the outbreak very seriously, though comparisons with the 1918 epidemic are premature. Here are some facts about swine flu courtesy of WHO, the Centers for Disease Control, and CBS 2’s Dr. Holly Phillips:

Q: What is swine flu?

A: Swine flu is a highly contagious acute respiratory disease normally found in pigs. It spreads through tiny particles in the air or by direct contact. According to WHO it tends to infect large numbers of a given pig population, killing between 1 and 4 percent of those affected. Not every animal infected displays symptoms.

Q: How many swine flu viruses are there?

A: Like all influenza viruses, swine flu viruses change constantly. Pigs can be infected by avian influenza and human influenza viruses as well as swine influenza viruses. When influenza viruses from different species infect pigs, the viruses can reassort (i.e. swap genes) and new viruses that are a mix of swine, human and/or avian influenza viruses can emerge. Over the years, different variations of swine flu viruses have emerged. At this time, there are four main influenza type A virus subtypes that have been isolated in pigs: H1N1, H1N2, H3N2, and H3N1. However, most of the recently isolated influenza viruses from pigs have been H1N1 viruses.

Q: Where do outbreaks occur?

A: Swine flu is considered endemic in the United States, and outbreaks in pigs have also been reported elsewhere in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and parts of eastern Asia.

Q: How do humans contract the virus?

A: People who get the virus usually get it from being around pigs, but the current health scare seems to be the result of human-to-human transmission.

Q: What are the symptoms of swine flu in humans?

A: The symptoms of swine flu in people are expected to be similar to the symptoms of regular human seasonal influenza and include fever, lethargy, lack of appetite and coughing. Some people with swine flu also have reported runny nose, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Q: How many swine flu viruses are there?

A: Like all influenza viruses, swine flu viruses change constantly. Pigs can be infected by avian influenza and human influenza viruses as well as swine influenza viruses. When influenza viruses from different species infect pigs, the viruses can reassort (i.e. swap genes) and new viruses that are a mix of swine, human and/or avian influenza viruses can emerge. Over the years, different variations of swine flu viruses have emerged. At this time, there are four main influenza type A virus subtypes that have been isolated in pigs: H1N1, H1N2, H3N2, and H3N1. However, most of the recently isolated influenza viruses from pigs have been H1N1 viruses

Q: What do we know about human-to-human spread of swine flu?

A: In September 1988, a previously healthy 32-year-old pregnant woman was hospitalized for pneumonia and died 8 days later. A swine H1N1 flu virus was detected. Four days before getting sick, the patient visited a county fair swine exhibition where there was widespread influenza-like illness among the swine.

In follow-up studies, 76% of swine exhibitors tested had antibody evidence of swine flu infection but no serious illnesses were detected among this group. Additional studies suggest that one to three health care personnel who had contact with the patient developed mild influenza-like illnesses with antibody evidence of swine flu infection.

Q: What can I do to prevent myself from catching swine flu?

A: Some simple precautions can reduce your risk of catching the illness.

Cover up coughs and sneezes, wash your hands often, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, and avoid being around people who are sick.

Symptoms are similar to those of the common flu: fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue.

The illness seems to be mild in most people, but the risk of complications or death from the virus is higher the elderly, children, and those with weakened immune systems.

Medications are available to treat the swine flu by prescription and they are most effective if started within 48 hours of symptoms.

The NY State Department of Health has set up a hot line number for residents who have questions about the swine influenza. That number is 1-800-808-1987.

Q: How high is the risk of a pandemic?

A: Since the swine flu outbreaks in Mexico and U.S. Were identified, the risk of a pandemic has increased. Health officials worry the swine flu might develop into a form easily spread among humans. To do this, it could combine with a human flu virus or mutate on its own into a transmissible form. Experts worry that the more the virus circulates, the more likely a pandemic strain will emerge. But there is no way to predict when a pandemic strain will develop.

Q: Does a vaccine exist?

A: Pigs in North America are routinely vaccinated for swine flu, but no vaccine exists for humans. In any case, the flu virus evolves quickly, meaning that vaccines are soon obsolete. Health officials say there is no suggestion that the vaccine prepared for seasonal flu will protect against swine flu.

While people who are given the seasonal flu vaccine will probably be not protected against swine flu, it may prevent them from getting the seasonal flu. If they are then infected with swine flu, that reduces the possibility of the two flus mixing in that person to create a potential pandemic strain.

Q: What other treatment is there?

A: The swine flu virus detected in Mexico and the United States appears to respond to treatment with oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza). In terms of prevention, maintaining good hygiene, for example regular hand-washing and staying a safe distance from those infected, may help.

In addition to the outbreak of the swine flu in Mexico, several cases have been reported in the US, including 8 NYC prep school students who are believed to have contracted an undetermined strain.

{Gertiver Medicine Journal/CBS Broadcasting/Matzav.com Newscenter} 

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