The swine flu (H1N1 influenza virus) is still spreading, but there's no need to panic. This flu does not appear to be as virulent (deadly) as the flu virus of 1918 that killed about 50 million people worldwide, or the flu of 1957 that killed 70,000 people in the U.S.
I'm not saying this virus is a wimp, because there have been several deaths in Mexico and the second American, a Texas woman, has succumbed to the illness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention along with state and local health departments have been outstanding in providing day-to-day updates about the swine flu.
Here are some questions that parents and patients in my office are asking:
Will the flu shot I had last fall protect me from getting the swine flu?
Answer: No. The flu vaccine given in the fall, and for the last several years, protected against human flu virus, based on the previous year's research. The swine flu is a different kind of virus that is foreign to our immune system (which may explain why it has been so contagious and potentially more lethal than other flu viruses).
Can the swine flu virus spread by contact from tables, chairs or phones?
Answer: Yes. Flu viruses may survive in moist droplets (for example from a sneeze or cough) for several minutes after landing on the surface of a table, keyboard, door knob or many other items. This is why frequent hand washing and cleaning is important.
If someone has swine flu, when are they no longer contagious?
Answer: A person may pass on the infection to others from the day before the onset of flu symptoms to seven days after the onset.
Why isn't there a vaccine available for the swine flu?
Answer: The current swine flu is a new virus which must be studied before a vaccine can be prepared. The last major epidemic in the U.S. was in 1976 and involved 200 soldiers in Fort Dix, New Jersey. President Ford urged congress to approve a greater than $100 million nationwide vaccine program for the flu. A vaccine was made available within weeks and the nationwide campaign for Americans to be vaccinated was very successful. Within a span of ten weeks, more than 40 million people across the nation were vaccinated. But the flu of 1976 never went beyond Fort Dix and one soldier of the 200 infected died. The vaccination program was halted after several cases of a rare neurological disorder, Guillain Barre Syndrome, appeared to be linked to this vaccine. The CDC and government officials want to carefully consider the risks and benefits before proceeding with a vaccination program. But research teams are working on a vaccine if needed.
Are medications available to treat the swine flu?
Answer: Yes. Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir) are prescription drugs approved for prevention and treatment of the current swine flu. Tamiflu is the preferred drug for people with asthma because the inhalant, Relenza, may be associated with respiratory complications.
Who should get antiviral treatment for the swine flu?