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All you wanted to know about swine flu

Sutapa Bhattacharya had fever when she arrived in Calcutta, back from a holiday in Singapore. She was asked to go from the airport to the Infectious Diseases Hospital. But she wanted to leave after signing a risk bond because she “knew” she did not have the disease. When she was not allowed to do so, she chose to walk out. Eventually, of course, officials brought her back and tests ruled out her having the H1N1 infection.

Incidents like the one involving Bhattacharya serve as an eye-opener to the fact that awareness of the H1N1 virus among people in India is still not widespread. Confirmed cases of H1N1 virus are being reported and health officials are taking precautionary measures such as putting in place screening and quarantine facilities. In the wake of World Health Organization (WHO) declaring it a pandemic in terms of geographical reach, KnowHow offers an overview. Here is all you need to know about the flu, and how to prevent it with simple lifestyle strategies.

1. What is H1N1 flu? H1N1 (also referred to as ‘swine flu’) is caused by a new influenza virus that causes illness in people. Genetic studies have shown that the viral strain is an amalgamation of genetic materials from at least three viruses affecting humans, birds and pigs, and hence is feared to be deadly.

2. Why is it called H1N1 virus? Influenza A viruses are named on the basis of two characteristic proteins found on the surface of the virus — haemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N). There are 16 H and 9 N subtypes known in birds, but only H 1,2 and 3, and N 1 and 2 are commonly found in humans.

3. Why is it dangerous? Public health experts are worried that this virus has the potential of becoming a global killer. The world hasn’t seen a flu pandemic since 1968 when more than a million lives were lost to one. As flu viruses mutate very fast, there is always the possibility that one of such strains will develop pandemic potential.

From a mere 38 cases (20 from the US and the rest from Mexico) on April 26, the virus had spread to 74 countries with confirmed cases mounting to 29,669 by June 12. It has so far killed 145 people.

4. Why worry when other infectious diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS kill people in much greater numbers?

Influenza is different from other infectious diseases as it is very contagious. Flu viruses are astonishingly mutable. On top of that, if an animal or human is infected with more than one strain at the same time, the strains may swap genes. Nine out of 10 times, such swaps fail to produce a lethal virus. But an occasional new virus may become a killer one like the one spreading now. And because it is so new, the hosts’ immune systems will not be prepared for it. Once it acquires the ability to transmit from one human being to another, it turns out to be a killer. Actually, this is one of the features that distinguish the new virus from the recent bird flu virus (which many thought could trigger a global pandemic but didn’t).

5. Is it safe to eat pork and pork products?

Although the virus originated in pigs, it is not known to move to people through pork and related products that are consumed. And flu viruses are not known to survive cooking temperatures of 70°C.

6. How do people become infected with H1N1 flu virus?

Outbreaks in humans are now occurring from human-to-human transmission. When infected people cough or sneeze, infected droplets get on their hands and nearby surfaces and are dispersed into the air. People who breathe in this contaminated air or touch the infected hands or surfaces become susceptible. Hence people should cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and wash their hands regularly.

7. What are the signs and symptoms of swine flu infection?

Early signs of influenza A (H1N1) are flu-like, including fever, cough, headache, muscle and joint pain, sore throat and runny nose, and sometimes vomiting or diarrhoea.

8. Is it safe to travel? Yes. WHO is not in favour of recommending any travel restrictions as yet. Although identifying signs and symptoms of influenza in travellers can help track the path of the outbreak, it will not reduce the spread of the influenza, as the virus can be transmitted from person to person even before the onset of symptoms. Scientific research based on mathematical modelling shows that restricting travel would be of limited or no benefit in stopping the spread of the disease.

9. Is there any effective vaccine against the new virus?

No, but work on such a vaccine is underway. Making a vaccine for a completely new variety of influenza can take five to six months.

10. How serious is it in India? India is the last country to have reported H1N1 infections. Till June 12, there are 16 confirmed H1N1 flu cases in India. Most of them contracted the infection while travelling abroad. The cases involving kin of the infected indicate that human-to-human transmission is taking place in India too. So we need to be on guard.

Frequently asked questions

What is H1N1 flu?

H1N1 flu, also called swine flu, is caused by a new influenza virus. The viral strain is made cocktail of genetic materials from at least three viruses, and hence deadly.

Can we eat pork and pork products?

Although the virus originated in pigs, it is not known to move to people through pork and related products. in any case, flu viruses don't survive cooking temperatures of 70°C. So it can be regarded as safe.

But don’t other infectious diseases kill people in much greater numbers?

True. But swine flu, being very contagious, can spread so far and hence cause more harm. And because the strain is so new, the hosts’ immune systems will not be prepared for it.

How do I know that I have it?

Symptoms similar to those of general flu such as fever, cough, headache, muscle and joint pain, sore throat and runny nose. But tests are essential for confirmation.

Is it safe to travel?

Till date, yes.

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