During flu season of 2009, the H1N1 "swine flu" virus spread around the world, causing the first global pandemic in more than 40 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that from April 2009 to April 2010, between 43 and 89 million people contracted H1N1, with about 12,000 deaths reported worldwide. It wasn't until August 10, 2010 that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an end to the pandemic, though they warned that it wouldn't be conquered until 2011 and that continued vigilance was necessary. As flu season approaches, many wonder: Is swine flu still an issue? If so, how do I protect myself and my family?
Cases of swine flu dwindled in late 2009, but continued to circulate as the predominant flu virus in early 2010. New vaccinations helped control and end the pandemic, but H1N1 continues to be a factor during flu season.
What is the swine flu?
The H1N1 virus or "swine flu" as it came to be called, first showed up in the United States in April 2009. Though the virus infects humans, it's called swine flu because researchers found that many of the genes in the virus were similar to flu viruses that occurred in swine (pigs). The H1N1 virus typically found in pigs changed in ways that allowed it to spread among humans. Additional research showed that H1N1 has two genes from flu viruses that occur in European and Asian pigs, as well as bird and human genes. H1N1 is what scientists call a "reassortant" virus, a mix of genes from various species.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of H1N1 are similar to regular flu symptoms, including:
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Body aches
- Respiratory problems
Since swine flu feels much like other types of influenza illnesses, the only way to tell for sure if you have it is through a lab test.
Who is at risk?
Most people who've been infected with H1N1 recover without treatment, as they would with the regular flu. Those most at risk--children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems--may require hospitalization. According to the CDC, people who ended up in the hospital because of H1N1 typically had other health concerns like diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or asthma.
Is H1N1 a concern for the 2011-2012 flu season?
Developing a flu vaccine for an upcoming season is somewhat of a guessing game, though a well-researched one. Health experts from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), CDC, and WHO get together to study virus samples from around the world. They identify those that are most likely to cause illnesses in the upcoming season, and then prepare a vaccination to protect against them.
The vaccine for the coming 2011-2012 season helps protect against the same viruses covered in the 2010-2011 vaccine, including H1N1. The CDC recommends, however, that even if you got the vaccine in 2010, you should get the updated version in 2011 to protect against new virus strains.
Who really needs to get a flu shot?
In past years, the CDC has suggested certain populations get a flu shot. This year, however, they're recommending that everyone six months of age and older get immunized. Those aged nine and older most likely need only a single shot to protect against the three strains of the flu, including H1N1. Children six months to eight years old may require two doses, depending on whether or not they received a flu shot in the 2010-2011 season. Those that got their 2010 shot will need only one dose.
What else can I do to prevent H1N1? In addition to getting your family immunized, follow these tips to reduce your risk of getting sick this season:
- Wash your hands often with soap and warm water. Use hand sanitizer when you don't have access to soap and water.
- Sneeze into your elbow or a tissue, not your hands.
- Regularly clean surfaces in your home like light switches, doorknobs, faucets, and appliance handles.
- Don't share food, utensils, or personal care items, and teach your children to do the same.
- Don't touch your face.
- If you feel sick, stay home from work or school to avoid spreading germs.