FAQ: Facts about the swine flu

by Amy Tudor, HealthCentral News Producer

What is swine flu?

As its name suggest, swine flu is a type of flu virus that usually only affects pigs. Four different swine flu strains commonly circulate among pigs, and the animals get sick but rarely die from it. However, between 2005 and 2009, there has been a rise in the number of human swine flu cases. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say the increase may be due to improved reporting systems, or that "genetic changes in swine flu viruses and other factors might also be a factor."

Why is this swine flu outbreak different?

The virus responsible for this outbreak is one of the cases of "a genetic change in the virus" the CDC was talking about. This virus has somehow acquired genes from pig, bird, and human flu bugs, along with genes from Eurasian swine flu viruses that aren't supposed to be in North America.  It's also being spread almost exclusively from human-to-human contact.

How do you catch swine flu?

Most cases of swine flu are seen in people who work with live pigs, but it can also be spread from person-to-person, just like the seasonal flu. Methods of human transmission include coughing or sneezing of people infected with the influenza virus, or by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching the mouth or nose.

NOTE:  You cannot catch swine flu from eating pork.

What are the symptoms of swine flu?

According to the CDC Web site, "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."

I got a flu shot – am I protected?

Unfortunately, no.  There currently is no vaccine for the swine flu.  Experts say it is possible that the flu vaccine could provide some protection against H3N2 swine flu bugs, but this swine flu virus is of a different strain.

Are there treatments for swine flu?

Yes, there are!  There are four different antiviral drugs that approved in the United States for the treatment of flu: Symmetrel (amantadine), Flumadine (rimantadine), Tamiflu (oseltamivir), and Relenza (zanamivir).  At this time, CDC recommends the use of Tamiflu or Relenza for the treatment and/or prevention of infection with flu, since recent strains have become resistant to the other two drugs.

According to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napilotano, about 12 million doses of the drug Tamiflu are being released from a federal stockpile so that states can get it if needed. The federal government has also declared a state of emergency, which is just a precautionary measure that will give government health experts access to tests and medications as needed.

Sources:  U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WebMD, Associated Press.

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