Question of the Week

April 28 , 2009


This year, as the traditional flu season winds down, there is a new threat that has many on edge. The "swine flu" (influenza A virus subtype H1N1) is raising international concerns.

"China, Russia and Taiwan began planning to quarantine travelers arriving from flu-affected areas if they have symptoms. Italy, Poland and Venezuela advised citizens to postpone travel to affected parts of Mexico and the U.S. Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and the Philippines were checking for signs of fever among passengers arriving at airports from North America. In Malaysia, health workers in face masks took the temperatures of passengers as they arrived from a flight from Los Angeles. Travelers with flu-like symptoms would be given detailed health checks. Multiple airlines, including American, United, Continental, US Airways, Mexicana and Air Canada, are waiving their usual penalties for changing reservations for anyone traveling to, from, or through Mexico, but have not canceled flights."
CBS News: Health

While various strains of the influenza virus cause thousands of fatalities every year in the United States and abroad, concerns associated with a pandemic flu are different.

"Generally, people who die from influenza are older people or those who already have respiratory problems. They end up dying of pneumonia. But this time around, the people who died in Mexico are younger. They are apparently healthy people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. That's a big deal. When a virus seems to preferentially affect healthy people, it suggests its a new virus and is causing an overreaction of the immune response. That's what happened with bird flu as well. Influenza is a virus that is always circulating between birds and pigs and people. Some have different genes that make them more or less infectious."

With this new strain of flu causing concerns that it could be fatal to people who are otherwise healthy, communities at the epicenter of the outbreak took precautionary measures to control its spread.

"Churches stood empty Sunday in heavily Roman Catholic Mexico City after services were canceled, and health workers screened airports and bus stations for people sickened by a new strain of swine flu that experts fear could become a global epidemic. Mayor Marcelo Ebrard said two more people died of swine flu overnight in the overcrowded capital, and three other deaths are suspected to have been caused by the strain. Another 73 more people were hospitalized with influenza, possible swine flu. City Health Secretary Armando Ahued said most of the fatalities involve victims who only sought medical help after the disease was well advanced and urged people to seek urgent care. ... Six million masks have been handed out by soldiers, Calderon said, urging Mexicans to use in public and take other precautions, such as avoiding traditional greetings with a handshake and a kiss on the cheek."

Early detection and treatment is key, but precautionary measures to avoid the spread of the flu in the first place are being implemented to avoid the spread and the need for treatment.

"Markets and restaurants were nearly empty and all school-related activities were suspended in the capital and the states of Mexico and San Luis Potosi until May 6. Hundreds of public events from concerts to sports matches to were called off to keep people from congregating and spreading the virus in crowds. Zoos were closed and visits to juvenile correction centers were suspended. About a dozen federal police in blue surgical masks stood in front of Mexico City's Metropolitan Cathedral, which was nearly empty after a measure canceling services to avoid large concentrations of people."

While Mexico has seen the worst of this flu thus far, confirmed cases have been reported in countries around the world, and officials from Australia to North America are acting quickly in the attempt to control its spread.

"Governments around the world acted to stem a possible flu pandemic on Monday, as a virus that has killed 103 people in Mexico and spread to North America was confirmed to have reached Europe. While the swine flu virus has so far killed no one outside Mexico, the fact that it has proved able to spread quickly between humans has raised fears that the world may finally be facing the flu pandemic that scientists say is long overdue."

The numbers are constantly changing, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is working to update its information and keep the American public educated with accurate information about where the virus has been reported, and to what degree it is affecting the population of given states.

"Human cases of swine influenza A (H1N1) virus infection have been identified in the United States. Human cases of swine influenza A (H1N1) virus infection also have been identified internationally. The current U.S. case count is provided below. ... Investigations are ongoing to determine the source of the infection and whether additional people have been infected with swine influenza viruses. CDC is working very closely with officials in states where human cases of swine influenza A (H1N1) have been identified, as well as with health officials in Mexico, Canada and the World Health Organization."

As "probable" cases become "confirmed" in the United States, some are working to trace the spread.

"New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg says that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed that students at a city high school were infected with swine flu. New York officials previously had said they were eight 'probable' cases, but tests later confirmed that it was indeed swine flu. Bloomberg stressed that the cases were mild and many are recovering. The city is awaiting the tests of additional samples to see if more St. Francis Preparatory School students were infected. About 100 students complained of flu-like symptoms at the school. Some students went to Cancun on a spring break trip two weeks ago."
The Baltimore Sun

As much as officials do their best to track and predict, pandemic viruses are not always predictable.

"Every epidemic has its own behavior. There's really no way of predicting. This could really just fade out or it could become very serious. Right now we are in a period of great uncertainty. In public health, that's the hardest thing."

As some officials work to track how the virus is being spread from one country and/ or region to another, others are working to take that information and use it to inform the public about what precautions should be taken, and where.

"In response to an intensifying outbreak in the United States and internationally caused by a new influenza virus of swine origin, the World Health Organization raised the worldwide pandemic alert level to Phase 5 on April 29, 2009. A Phase 5 alert is a 'strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.'"

While the name "swine flu" can be confusing for some, it is important for everyone to understand that swine flu is actually spread like any other strain of the influenza virus -- people can not catch it from eating pork, but they can catch it from sharing germs with someone who has the disease.

"The single best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get vaccinated each year, but good health habits like covering your cough and washing your hands often can help stop the spread of germs and prevent respiratory illnesses like the flu. There also are flu antiviral drugs that can be used to treat and prevent the flu. * Avoid close contact: Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too. * Stay home when you are sick: If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. You will help prevent others from catching your illness. * Cover your mouth and nose: Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick. * Clean your hands: Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. * Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth: Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth. * Practice other good health habits: Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food."

Questions of the Week:
Why is the "swine flu" (influenza A virus subtype H1N1) of greater concern to health officials than other strains of the flu virus that hit the United States every year? What do you, your friends, and your family members need to know about swine flu? When there is a suspected case in your area, what will you need to know to reduce your risk of getting sick and/ or potentially getting the disease and spreading it to someone else? What would you say to someone who was confused about how swine flu is spread?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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